Historical Lectures and Addresses/The Congregationalists
The object of these addresses is to try and understand the principles on which rest the differences which divide Christian bodies from one another. Our tendency, when first we are brought face to face with such differences, is to approach them from the point of view of common-sense, to consider them as contained in so many formulated statements which can be discussed on their own merits. But this attitude is soon found to be superficial. The causes of disagreement lie deeper than the surface. They are interwoven with every part of a man's view of life: they are a portion of his moral and intellectual heritage: they have been handed down to him from the past and appeal to his emotions by the halo of noble tradition with which they are surrounded. English Nonconformity has great memories. All its various forms corresponded to some genuine need of the time in which it arose. Each embodies some great truth which was once overlooked or neglected. Nonconformity can boast its roll of martyrs and confessors: it can point to the record of undoubted services which it rendered to England in times gone by. To understand the principles of Congregationalism we must not be content to take them from the mouth of their modern exponents; we must consider the conditions which gave them birth.
The ecclesiastical revolution of the sixteenth century was profound. The old system of the Church was overgrown by so many abuses that, when it adopted an attitude of stubborn conservatism before the cry for reform, it could not maintain itself at the bar of an awakened and, in some ways an intelligent, public opinion. But the leaders of the revolt found it easier to point out the weaknesses of the old system than to erect a new one in its place; and the need of satisfying temporary conditions, rather than any clear grasp of principle, dictated the constructive efforts of Luther in Germany. Calvin's strength lay in the fact that he built up a system as strong and as authoritative as had been that which it claimed to replace. But England had no need of Calvin's system. It dealt with its own difficulties in its own characteristic way. It discarded the papal jurisdiction, it removed the accretions of mediæval theology, it abolished ceremonies which did not tend to edification, but it retained the system and the organisation of the old Church. The practical question to be settled was whether or no such a simple solution of the question was possible. It has always been a tendency of the English mind to dislike speculation, to be shy of new ideas, and to imagine that England can settle its own affairs independently of the great currents of thought which agitate the rest of Europe. The success of the Reformation undertaken by Henry VIII. and Cranmer depended on its consistent maintenance during the time when men's minds were fermenting. This was prevented by the alternate changes of the reigns of Edward VI. and Mary. Both periods drove a number of exiles on to the Continent, and raised two bodies of uncompromising partisans who introduced into England on the one hand the ideas of Calvin, on the other hand the ideas of the Romanist reaction. The Anglican system, as restored under Elizabeth, no longer corresponded to the wishes of the most fervent minds. It satisfied the bulk of the nation, but there was a fringe on either side who hoped to modify it according to their own preferences. Still neither party wished to divide the Church. Both believed that the unity of the State involved the unity of the Church; both accepted as an axiom the necessity of a uniform system of ecclesiastical organisation.
The influence, however, of Calvinism as a system of Church government was never strong in England. The early Puritans cannot fairly be considered as Calvinists. They rather represented a floating feeling of dissatisfaction with the coldness of religious life, and the want of adequate opportunities for the expression of personal devotion and the nurture of personal religion. The Church was ill-supplied with teachers; sermons were rare; attendance at church was required by Act of Parliament; no latitude was allowed. The precarious condition of politics made the establishment of order a paramount necessity of State; and, unfortunately, religious discussion was held to be dangerous. The rule of the State was, that people might think what they liked, but they must go to church to prove that they were loyal subjects. Further, as discussion led to dissension, and as England needed a united front and a resolute bearing to face its manifold foes, discussion was prohibited. The intention was not so much to suppress opinion but to attempt to make the State the arbiter of the limits within which the expression of opinion was permissible. The State was tolerant in so far that it did not aim at enforcing unity, but it demanded a minimum of uniformity, the extent of which it claimed the right of defining. Thus the Church tended to lose the appearance of a free and self-governing body, and seemed to be an instrument of the policy of the State. Its pleadings and its arguments lost half their weight because they were backed by coercive authority. The dangerous formula, "Obey the law," was introduced into the settlement of questions which concerned the relations of the individual conscience and God: a dangerous formula, because it seemed to admit the existence of a body of enlightened opinion which was struggling against the decisions of expediency and could not be met upon the open ground of truth and the reasonableness of the thing in itself.
Moreover, this uniformity of the sixteenth century was essentially retrograde. We are in the habit of looking on the mediæval Church as a great engine for the repression of opinion; but this is scarcely true. It allowed the formation of opposing bodies of philosophic opinion; men ranged themselves under the banners of conflicting teachers; many questions which have since been closed by the Church of Rome were then open for discussion. The peasant in the country village was not left entirely at the mercy of his parish priest, but was aroused by the stirring mission services in the open air and the popular preaching of the friars, who from time to time broke the monotony of the formal services of the Church. In the sixteenth century in England all this liberty was suddenly stopped. The rude festivities by which the mediæval Church sought to bring some sense of God's presence into the ordinary life of man were done away with as being superstitious and unedifying. The friars disappeared, and in many villages the voice of the preacher was silent from one year's end to another. Homilies, injunctions and proclamations were read from the pulpit; but they were far-off echoes of struggles and controversies which did not touch the hearts of men. The mere fact that appeals to the Pope were abolished left the man of suspected opinions at the mercy of the speedy judgment which would be given within the realm, and the issue of which could be clearly foreseen. The politic uniformity of the sixteenth century was a burden which the men of previous centuries would not have been able to bear.
The men on whom the burden weighed most heavily were the more zealous or more scrupulous of the clergy. It is true that the outward expressions which they gave to their feelings of discontent were sometimes trivial. First they raised questions concerning ritual—the use of the surplice and some ceremonies to which they objected as savouring of Popery. It was a cry devoid of contents and soon passed away. Then came the purely academic movement, which had its headquarters in the University of Cambridge, the movement for Presbyterianism which was started by Cartwright. This movement, which seems important, was not so in reality. It took no hold upon the popular mind; in fact the ecclesiastical system of Presbyterianism never commended itself to Englishmen. Its rigid enforcement of discipline, its large claims to allegiance, did not attract them; long before Milton's days they had grasped the fact that "new presbyter is but old priest writ large". The discussion of Presbyterianism was left to the learned and the decision was given against it. Still the need was felt for a freer and fuller expression of the needs of the religious life. The clergy met for the purpose of theological discussion. It may be that the time was ill-chosen; but the State did not endeavour to find room for this growing zeal and energy. Archbishop Grindal was ordered to forbid these "prophesyings," as they were called, and when he refused was suspended from his office. After this there could be no longer any doubt about the position of affairs in England. Religious earnestness must be content to find its expression through such sources as the State allowed. Puritanism might be repressed as a system, but as a temper of mind it still survived and raised questions from time to time: a controversy about the keeping of the Sabbath: an effort, again started in Cambridge, to assert the rigid doctrine of Calvinistic Predestination against an apparently laxer conception of grace: still later a protest in behalf of greater morality of life as shown in reverence for the Lord's Day and the stricter observance of the practices of outward devotion.
These were not matters of vital importance, and in themselves aroused only languid interest. But the Church of England had become closely identified with the State, and under the Stuart kings the government of the State drifted slowly away from popular sympathies and popular aspirations. The Church was dragged in its train till it was regarded as a powerful instrument of anti-popular government. Then it was that Puritanism became powerful as a centre of opposition to a tyrannical and unconstitutional use of power, and discontent against the exercise of the royal authority was united with hostility to the jurisdiction of bishops. The development of opinion in the Long Parliament was rapid, and was moulded largely by outward circumstances. The original desire to draw a distinction between the spiritual and temporal power of the bishops, and to reduce them to the model of primitive episcopacy was expanded before the prospect of needful help from Scotland. The foreign system of Presbyterianism, alien to English instincts, was hastily adopted as a solution of religious difficulties and a guarantee for a substantial alliance. It was a fatal mistake, which might have wrecked the cause of English liberty; it had the result of wrecking English Puritanism as it had hitherto existed. Yet it was a natural mistake, for it seemed to provide an answer to the existing problem. The organisation of the Church, as it was established in England, was judged to be unsatisfactory: it could provide no place for the missionary zeal of the Puritan clergy: it would pay no heed to their scruples: it had further been a help to an unconstitutional government which men were unanimous in wishing to amend. Why not try a new form which had proved its success in a neighbouring kingdom, which afforded room enough for Puritan zeal, and possessed a strong system of discipline in marked contrast to the lukewarmness of the English Church? So thought the political leaders of the new age, and so they acted, on grounds of policy just as true and just as false as those which animated the statesmen of Elizabeth in framing the Anglican Church. The commissioners of the Kirk assembled at Westminster, and England was to be legislated into the model of Geneva.
That this result was prevented, and that the great Civil War succeeded in its objects, was due to the Independents and to the principles which they asserted. Hitherto they had not been influential in England, though it was in that country that they took their rise. They were the direct results of the evil effects which followed from the too great identity of the Church with the State. They were the advanced wing of the English Puritans, whose sense of existing wrongs was so keen that their one object was to protest vehemently against them. The first man who gave expression to these feelings was Robert Browne, a puritan clergyman in Norfolk, who stated his desire for a fuller reformation in the form that "the Kingdom of God was not to be begun by whole parishes, but rather of the worthiest, were they never so few". The importance of this statement lay in the fact that not only was he dissatisfied with the trammels of the English Church, but the system of Calvin seemed to him to be open to equal objections. He did not struggle for readjustments of the liturgy or of the ceremonies or of the government of the Church. The proposed amendments seemed to him to be as dangerous as the present evils. Separation from what was intrinsically wrong became a plain duty. The whole of the past history of the Church was a vast mistake. A new form of the Christian community must be founded on a new basis, and Christian history must start afresh. So much in Browne's opinions was the result of the reaction of a fervent spirit against the actual conditions in which he was placed. His constructive system was influenced, as all systems must be, by practical considerations of what was possible.
It was impossible to appeal to civil authority in aid of a revolt which threatened anarchy. So Browne asserted that the magistrate had no ecclesiastical authority at all, but that it belonged to Christians themselves to consider what is lawful and what is expedient It was impossible to form the new community on any recognised area of parish or congregation. So Browne asserted that "the Church, planted or gathered, is a company of Christians, who by a willing covenant made with their God are under the government of God and Christ and keep His laws in one holy communion". His conception of church government was the absolute monarchy of Christ over His Church, imparting His wisdom and entrusting His power to all true believers. It was a theocracy founded on a democracy; the ministers of the Church were to be chosen by the congregation and ordained by them; they were pastors for exhortation, teachers for teaching, elders for oversight and counsel.
This system of Browne contains the great principles of Congregationalism. 1. The separation of the faithful from sinners. Each congregation consisted of believers, and its object was to maintain a high standard of purity and holiness among its members. 2. Resistance to all outward control, either on the part of the State or of a hierarchy. Each congregation was to be a voluntary body. Membership, besides depending on fitness, was to be a matter of free choice. 3. To guard this freedom each congregation was to be an independent unit, having the sole right to manage its own affairs, appoint its own teachers, and determine its own doctrine.
Browne's system failed in practice, and he returned to the bosom of the Church. But the principle of separatism lived on and had its martyrs. England, holding to its belief in uniformity, could find no place for men who held separation not only to be permissible but an absolute duty. A little band of men so minded found a refuge in Holland, and there strove to work out their ideal of a Christian Church, which proved in practice to be no easy matter. Browne's system of church government had been practically democratic. The next exponent of Independency, Henry Barrow, who died on the scaffold for his opinions, strove to avert the evils which might flow from so broad a basis by emphasising the authority of the ministers and elders. While he condemned the aristocratic system of Presbyterianism, he supposed it possible that the elders should lead and the people should exercise their liberty in following. This narrow distinction was difficult to observe in practice, and the Congregation of Amsterdam tended to fade into Presbyterianism by exalting the power of the ruling elders. It was a Cambridge man, John Robinson, once Fellow of Corpus Christi College, who gave new life to Independency by leading out to Leyden a little flock which had gathered round him in the chapel of Scrooby Manor in Norfolk. Robinson, a man of broad mind and strong intelligence, as well as fervent zeal, reduced the position of the elders to that of moral leadership of the people, with an authority resting on persuasion—a compromise between popular and aristocratic government which was intelligible to Englishmen of that time.
But Robinson and his congregation were not happy in Holland, and few promptings of heroism rank higher in human annals than the courageous resolve which led that little band to seek in the unknown western world a new home where they might worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, and found a pure and regenerate society unfettered by the surroundings of a degenerate past. Few relics are more profoundly pathetic than that grey boulder, religiously preserved in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts, on which tradition says that the Pilgrim Fathers first set foot, when on 20th December, 1620, they disembarked from the Mayflower, and amid the blinding snow looked out upon the desolate spot which they were henceforth to call their home.
I need not follow the history of New England Congregationalism, which stamped upon the early colonies of America the severe morality and patient industry which have trained a nation. Nor will I make it a reproach that the commonwealth, founded on an assertion of religious liberty, did not at once declare itself in favour of toleration. Salem sent back to England those who preferred to use their Prayerbook; and Massachusetts found no place for the turbulent spirit of Roger Williams, who first maintained the absolute liberty of conscience.
It was natural that Old England, not New England, should first grapple with this question of toleration; and it was the struggle of the Independents against the Presbyterians which first brought it into practical form. When the Long Parliament agreed to establish Presbyterianism in England, it did not take count of the Independents. It is true that they were few and scattered, not organised into a party. They consisted of the remnants of the Brownists and Barrowists, and of those who returned from Holland; but they were helped later by allies from New England. The Westminster Assembly drew out on paper the presbyterian system of ecclesiastical polity; but the more men saw it the less they liked it. It established a rigid discipline which threatened personal liberty: it claimed an absolute power of excommunication: it trespassed upon the supreme authority of Parliament: above all it required the Independents to submit to the coercive authority of an ecclesiastical assembly. The Independents were the first to raise objections to the assertion of a principle in which they did not agree; and in the discussion of their pleas, the first pleadings for tolerance were heard. Yet it was some unknown and enlightened Anglican who first put into shape the great argument on which tolerance rests: "It were better that many false doctrines were published, especially with a good intention and out of weakness only, than that one sound truth should be forcibly smothered or wilfully concealed".
I need not tell the story how Parliament and the Westminster Assembly decided religious matters one way while the army decided them another. Independency grew strong, because it afforded the means of a free expression of religious feelings, and so attracted the sturdy Puritans whom Cromwell formed into a splendid army. The puritan clergy, on the other hand, were attracted by the more ecclesiastical side of Presbyterianism and threw in their lot with the Kirk. The success of the army brought the Independents into power under Cromwell, who attempted a scheme of comprehension. On the one hand, he rejected the primary principle of Congregationalism—for he maintained a Church which was in connexion with the State; on the other hand, he strove to include within that Church all whom he thought could safely be included. Where the presbyterian system had been set in action it was to remain. Congregational churches were to preserve their independence, and every form of combination of these systems was permitted. Only episcopacy was to be suppressed: for papists and prelatists the government of the Commonwealth could find no room.
If this system had been long continued, it seems probable that Congregationalism would have largely modified its principles. It is the necessary characteristic of schemes which owe their power to a protest against evils, that they should flourish in opposition but fade before prosperity. Certain it is that Independents did not express much objection to the union of Church and State on Cromwell's basis, and many of them accepted offices in Cromwell's Church. Further, where they found themselves by the side of the Presbyterians, who rode at anchor on the Westminster Confession, they were eager to set forth a confession of their own. In despite of Cromwell's objections, the Independent divines met at the Savoy, and, in the uncertain time that followed Cromwell's death, rapidly put forth their "Declaration". Its preface states: "From the first, every, or at least the generality of our Churches, have been in a manner like so many ships (though holding forth the same general colours) lancht singly, and sailing apart and alone in the Vast Ocean of these tumultuating times, and exposed to every wind of Doctrine, under no other conduct than the Word and the Spirit, and their particular Elders and principal Brethren, without Associations among ourselves, or so much as holding out common lights to others, whereby to know where we are".
Such was the cry of the leaders of Congregationalism at the time when they seemed most prosperous. Then it was that they began to feel the need of some more definite organisation. The Savoy Declaration adopted most of the doctrinal articles of the Westminster Confession, but upheld the independency of local churches, though it recognised a place for councils. However, the Savoy Declaration had little authority, for the downfall of Independency rapidly followed, and a dwindling and persecuted body fell back upon its original principles when the need for organisation was no longer pressing.
The restoration of Charles II. was due to the combination of Anglicans and Presbyterians against the Independents. Puritanism, in the days of its ascendency, had not commended itself to the heart of the English people. The leaders of the old puritan clergy had joined the Presbyterians and regarded the Independents with suspicion, while they hoped for comprehension within the re-established State Church. In that expectation they were disappointed; and we may regret that wise statesmanship did not devise a means of temporary compromise. But on the broad ground of principle their disappointment was inevitable, for the puritan party had unfortunately deserted its old ground and had adopted the Presbyterian system. Other differences might have been arranged, but the recognition of episcopacy was essential. When this was refused, reconciliation became impossible. The Church, deprived of its most spiritual element, suffered a loss from which it did not for long recover. Puritanism sank into dissent, and was concerned mainly with maintaining its own existence. The State pursued the old road of attempting to establish uniformity by coercion, till weariness and failure led to some measure of toleration which grew into religious liberty.
This historical sketch may serve to show the conditions which produced Congregationalism and which stamped their mark, the great characteristic of the congregational system. The aim of that system is freedom; to obtain freedom it sacrifices even the idea of unity. The position of Congregationalists is that "each society of believers is properly a Christian Church, and that the New Testament authorises every Christian Church to elect its own officers, to manage all its own affairs and to stand independent of and irresponsible to all authority saving only that of the Supreme and Divine Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ". Even the possibility of an organised confederacy is strictly limited, for they go on to say: "We believe that it is the duty of Christian Churches to hold communion with each other, to entertain an enlarged affection for each other as members of the same body, and to co-operate for the promotion of the Christian cause; but that no Church, or union of Churches, has any right or power to interfere with the faith or discipline of any other Church ".
What the Congregationalists deny is the conception of the Church as a visible body. Luther asserted that the Holy Catholic Church, consisting of those who were justified by faith, was not the same thing as the Church of Rome. But in his eyes the invisible Church stood to the visible as the soul to the body, the primitive principle which was always striving to find a fit expression. Calvin, in like manner, contended that his system was universally true and was the only expression of the form of the invisible Church set forth in Scripture. The Congregationalists recognised the futility of such claims at the bar of history, and threw away the idea of a visible Church altogether. Believers might meet and worship as they pleased: through faith they had direct communion with their Lord: what more was needed? Their position was good against new forms of ecclesiastical polity; it did not affect the historic Church.
We, who rejoice that we are members of the Holy Catholic Church, find in the record of our Lord's life clear witness that one great aim of His earthly ministry was the formation of a society and the education of its leaders. As a matter of fact He did not found a number of small congregations, but He selected Apostles and bade them preach the Gospel in all the world and gave them the assurance of His abiding presence. The little leaven, the grain of mustard, represent an agency endowed with organic life. We know that Christ hears any prayer anywhere and anyhow offered to Him. We know that "where two or three are gathered together there is He in the midst"; but there is also that other and fuller promise given to the visible Church which the Apostles were bidden to found: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world". There is an invisible Church, known only to its Lord, in which we humbly hope our membership will some day be made manifest. But that does not exclude a visible Church of which we are all members here on earth, and through which, as through a portal, we pass into the Communion of Saints. That visible Church is the eternal legacy of our blessed Lord to the world. It is the witness of His work, the keeper of His word, the guardian and guide of His flock. To it He gave His most precious promises; through it, by divinely appointed channels, He administers the gifts of His grace. The broad lines of its organisation were determined in the time of the Apostles, and round that organisation the visible Church of Christ has ever clustered, subject, like all else on earth, to failures and imperfections, stained many a time with the disgrace of falling short of its high calling, chastened for its shortcomings, but wondrously blessed when it awakened to the sense of its mighty mission. This organisation we steadfastly maintain as being, next to God's written revelation, His greatest gift to struggling men. "We cannot afford," I quote one of the last utterances of Bishop Lightfoot, "we cannot afford to sacrifice any portion of the faith once delivered to the saints; we cannot surrender for any immediate advantages the threefold ministry which we have inherited from Apostolic times, and which is the historic backbone of the Church." It is this historic Church which Congregationalism entirely sacrifices. Not only has the past history of the Church been a vast blunder, but it shall have no history in the future. Each congregation is to be free and independent, and is to rest on its own consciousness of communion with the Lord. It is as though in civil life we believed in home and heaven, and took no account of city or of state.
We of the Church of England have increasing reason to rejoice that our country, in its time of trial, preserved the immemorial heritage of the Catholic Church. The days are past when it can be regarded as a matter of policy or convenient arrangement. It has become the object of our deepest reverence, of our most passionate regard. We can point, as to the witness of God's presence, to the marvellous recuperative power which it has shown and is showing; to its capacity to adapt itself to altered circumstances and conditions of life and thought; to its willingness to learn truths which it has mistakenly overlooked; to learn from Congregationalists that regard for individual responsibility, that sense of the integrity of conscience to maintain which their forefathers suffered and died. In spite of all its faults the Church of England is the historic Church which has influenced and is influencing the world by its testimony to the abiding presence of the Lord, not in the heart of one and another who here and there in scattered congregations assemble in His name, but in the vast body of Christian men dispersed throughout the world, who are what they are through union with Him in His visible Church, the true fostering mother of us all.