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We have already seen that in the Westminster Assembly there were only six Independents, and that these were regarded with jealousy and dislike by the Presbyterians, who denied them the rights of toleration : this, however, they enjoyed in common with others, under the Protectorate, as Cromwell favoured their sentiments, by nominating their principal divines to be his chaplains, as well as to fill the most important places in the Universities. Dr. Owen was Dean of Christ Church, and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, and Dr. Goodwin President of Magdalen College. Milton gave to the Independents all the glory which his illustrious name could confer, for though he does not formally set forth their principles, yet, throughout the whole of his prose works, he is incidentally an ardent, sincere, and eloquent advocate of their views. How rapidly they spread may be inferred from the fact already mentioned that, at the Savoy Conference, held a little while before Cromwell's death, the representatives of a hundred churches were present.
Under the tyranny of the Stuarts, Independency had little opportunity of extending its influence or propagating its principles, and, together with Presbyterianism, was crushed, as far as it could be, under the iron heel of oppression, and, like that, rose again in vigour and in strength, by the provisions of the Toleration Act. The nominal Presbyterianism, however, for it was only such, soon coalesced with Independency.
A few things may here be noticed.
1. Independency, as it now exists, was a thing of slow growth and very gradual development. The idea of each separate congregation having the right and power of complete self-government, did not spring up all at once in the minds of the founders of this system, but grew up into a system by successive discoveries of the meaning of the New Testament.
2. Independency was not at first identified with separation. Many who held the system did not come out from the Establishment in the first instance, and for an obvious reason, because they were forbidden by law to do so; and afterwards from certain scruples about the matter. There was a vast difference in the measures of light which the holders of this system had received, as a perusal and comparison of their works attest.
3. Independency, as we have already proved from a quotation from the sermons of Dr. Owen, did not at that time disallow of state support of religion. Most of the followers of this form of polity held not only the lawfulness but the duty of the civil magistrate to support truth by authority and endowments.
4. Independency, as is evident from the records of ecclesiastical history and the present state of religious denominations, has commended itself to the judgment of a very large portion of the professors of Christianity. It is maintained by the Unitarians and the Baptists, as well as by those to whom the designation is now conventionally applied. It is the system which almost exclusively prevails in the New England States of America, and of course is supported by the Baptists in that country, who in the Southern States are the most numerous body of professing Christians. If this be considered, and it be recollected also that in these United Kingdoms there cannot be much less than four thousand congregations formed upon this principle, and that these congregations are composed of persons who hold the scriptures to be the only infallible rule of church order and discipline—who profess to be guided solely by that unerring rule—and who exercise an unfettered right of private judgment in the interpretation of the word of God,- it will surely appear to every unprejudiced mind that this, though certainly not a proof that the system is true, is a strong presumption that it is neither so extravagant, nor self destructive, as many of its opponents represent it to be. It has spread too widely among thinking men to be regarded as altogether an insignificant, contemptible, or irrational heresy, and lasted too long to be viewed as a mere experiment which is sure to fail in the trial.
5. The element of Independency is, to a certain extent, to be traced in all churches, except that of Rome. That arrogant communion with a daring ambition claims to be the head, the only head, of the whole Christian community on earth, and asserts a right, which it would exercise if it had the power, to hold all other churches in a state of dependence and subordination. In every age of the Christian era there have been churches, and there are still, which assert, and practice, their independence of the Roman See. The Church of England is independent of Rome, and so are many others, and these are all independent of each other. The nonconformist Independents only carry this principle still further, and in the exercise of their liberty claim an independence for each congregation, not only of the Church of Rome, and Church of England, but of each other.
6. Congregational Independency, it is candidly admitted, requires much intelligence, piety, and self-government on the part of its members, in order to its harmonious working: and for want of these qualifications no doubt many contentions and divisions arise, as was the case in nearly all the churches planted by the apostles. There is a strong centrifugal force in each congregation that requires the balance of a centripetal power of much personal religion to prevent confusion and mischief.
7. Independency admits not only of the friendly intercourse, association, and co-operation of neighbour churches, but of advisory councils. Brown recommended them; Robinson practised them; Dr. Owen makes room for them; the Congregational Church at Amsterdam adopted them, and so do all the Independents in New England : and the adoption of the plan by our English Independents would save us many strifes, divisions, and injudicious settlements. The fact is we are too independent, and most deplorably need a little more disposition to seek and take advice. Our Independency, though right in its general principles, is certainly not infallible and perfect in its practical working. Perhaps all the denominations might learn something from each other: we are none of us either entirely right, or entirely wrong. A determination to reject all standards but the New Testament—a loving spirit towards each other, combined at the same time with a still stronger love of truth-and the maintenance of candid, generous, and respectful controversy, would bring us much nearer to each other, and help us to find out a more excellent way than any of us have yet discovered. Shall we ever see the subordination of Episcopacy—the union of Presbyterianism and the liberty of Independency-combined in one system, and that system removing all prejudices, harmonising all parties, spreading through the state without being, in modern phrase, a state religionsustained by the voluntary offerings of its friends, and so adequately sustained as to need no other support ? Yes—but I am afraid not till the millennium. Then let us pray for that consummation so devoutly to be wished.
CARR'S-LANE CHAPEL. It has been already stated that the congregations of the Old and New Meeting-houses were originally Trinitarian, and that they had subsequently embraced Unitarianism: and it may not be irrelevant to glance here at the history and progress of this change of religious opinion, a change of such very wide extremes. About the year 1707 a controversy was raised by Whiston, Professor of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge, on the person of Christ. Whiston avowed himself an Arian, on which, in 1710, he was expelled from his professorship for heresy. This system, which reduced our Lord from his true and proper divinity to a super-angelic nature, found a more able advocate in Dr. Samuel Clarke, rector of St. James's, Westminster, who published a book on the Trinity, in which Arianism is presented in the most orthodox garb with which its ingenious and subtle author could invest it. A few years after this the system found an entrance into the nonconformist body by the labours of Joseph Hallet and James Pierce, two Presbyterian ministers of Exeter. The controversy thus originated soon spread, and was carried on with considerable zeal by both parties. The whole dissenting community, both in the metropolis and the provinces, was agitated by it, though Exeter and the West were considered as its centre. Great numbers of both ministers and their flocks received the new doctrines, and among these were the ministers of the Old and New Meetings in Birmingham. A gradual departure from
Trinitarian doctrine had no doubt been going on in the ministers who successively filled the pulpits of those places of worship. There was a pretty large class of preachers at that time with whom it was not common to be very explicit in their statements of what is called doctrinal sentiment. They were more practical than dog. matical; and exhibited much more of hortatory persuasiveness than of theoretic truth in their sermons.