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SO much, and so much to the purpose, has been published on the doctrine of church fellowship, that nothing but the repeated solicitations of friends, who would take no denial, could have induced me to add to the number of such publications. I do not pretend to say any thing new on the subject, I have only endeavoured to state the case, and arrange the arguments, leaving every reader to form his own judgment.
THE most diligent and upright disciples of Jesus Christ have always entertained, and do yet entertain various sentiments concerning articles of faith and modes of divine worship, and there are but two ways of acting among christians in this
The first, which the far greater part profess to pursue, is that of obtaining, some way or other, unity of faith, and uniformity of practice. In the papal corporation, and in some reformed communities, riches and power contend with weakness and want to silence scruples, and to force a real or professed uniformity. In some of our nonconformist churches, learning, argument and beneficence are employed to produce the same effect. At length, however, unquestionable facts prove, that, how upright soever the attempt may be, the end is unattainable. The mind of man, uncontrolled in its operations, and for ever diversifying its modes of thinking, refuses to submit to restraint, and it is the virtue of such a mind to avow its refusal.
If uniformity cannot be obtained, say the other, and the smaller part of christians, there remains
only one thing for us to do; we must so constitute our churches as to allow variety of sentiment and practice, and by so doing acknowledge the force of nature for the voice of God. Let us put, say they, toleration in the place of uniformity; this can never be produced; but that lies within the reach of every society.
The English nonconformists have, of all mankind, best understood, and most practised christian liberty but there have arisen in many of their churches, as may naturally be supposed of men zealous for their religious principles, doubts and debates concerning the extent of that toleration, which christian liberty implies, but which, however ought not to run into licentiousness, as it would if it went so far as to hazard the purity of gospel worship and order.
Under this consideration comes the well known controversy among our Baptist congregations, whether churches consisting of members all baptized by immersion on a profession of faith and repentance, ought to admit into their fellowship such persons as profess faith and repentance, and desire communion with them, but refuse to be baptized by immersion, because they account they have been rightly baptized by sprinkling in their infancy. To this question, and to this only, we shall confine our attention.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THIS CONTROVERSY.
This dispute, it should seem, began in the reign of Charles I. Some time about the year 1633, a member of that congregational church in London, of which Mr. Lathorp was pastor, doubting the validity of that baptism, which Mr. Lathorp had administered to his child, carried the child to the parish priest to be rebaptized. This affair came before the brethren at a church meeting, and of consequence brought on an inquiry, first concerning the validity of lay baptism, and next concerning the validity of infant baptism itself. In the end, several members declared against infant baptism, and desired liberty to depart, and to form a distinct congregation in such order as was most agreeable to their own sentiments. To this peaceable proposal the church agreed, and, the new church being formed, Mr. Spilsbury was appointed pastor of it.
In 1634 Mr. Lathorp, with about thirty of his members, fled into New England from the persecution of the prelates. After his departure his church divided into three parts; Mr. Canne was minister of one, Mr. Barebone of another, and Mr. Jessey of the third. These frequent divisions did not proceed, as their adversaries affirmed, from a factious spirit, much less from the nature and constitution of our churches, but partly from the great increase of their members, and partly from
the danger of being discovered by their persecutors, when large societies met.
In 1638 Mr. Kiffin, and several other members of Mr. Jessey's church, having become baptists, were dismissed from thence to the church under the care of Mr. Spilsbury. In Mr. Spilsbury's church persons were allowed to preach, who had not been baptized by immersion. Mr. Kiffin, who was himself a preacher, objected against this, and at length removed his communion to the church at Devonshire-square, where he was afterward settled pastor. A transition from the right of unbaptized persons to preach, to the right of the same persons to communion, was natural, and Mr. Kiffin soon published a piece entitled A sober discourse of right to church communion, in which he endeavoured to prove, that no unbaptized persons may be regularly admitted to the Lord's supper. I take this to be the first piece published professedly on this subject.
Mr. Jessey continued to practise infant baptism till 1645, when he renounced that opinion, and was baptized by immersion by Mr. Hanserd Knollys, who had been the same year ordained pastor of a baptist church assembling in great St. Helen's.
Mr. Jessey did not quit his former charge on being baptized, but continued pastor of the same church till his death, which happened in Sept. 1663. His situation naturally led him to study the point of right to church fellowship, and, judging mixt communion lawful, he wrote a small piece in defence of it. It is a dissertation, perhaps a