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A Historical Basis for Baptist Cooperation – The Philadelphia Association

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In a previous post, I talked about the 17th Century Baptists of England. Switching both centuries and continents, we now consider the 18th century Baptists of America. It is important to remember that these Baptists did not invent associations and cooperation among independent churches, so much as they built upon the conclusions their Baptist forefathers had already arrived at. They stood, as it were, on the shoulders of the 17th Century Baptists from England. One helpful example to turn to is the Philadelphia Association.

“[O]n July 27, 1707…five small Baptist churches organized the Philadelphia Baptist Association.”[1] It is noteworthy to mention the influence that Elias Keach, son of Benjamin, had upon this Association. In 1686, the younger Keach came to America to preach but at that point he was not even converted.[2] Perhaps he thought that if he said he was the son of the famous Benjamin Keach he could gain popularity and even line his own pockets with worldly gain.

At one such meeting, possibly one of the first, if not the first, in Pennepack, Pennsylvania, Elias Keach began preaching from an unregenerate heart but at some point in the sermon was visibly convicted and was either converted on the spot or just a short while later through the counsel of another Baptist pastor.[3] In 1688 Elias became the founding pastor of Pennepack Baptist Church.[4] He was influential to area churches and “did much to encourage the idea of connectionalism among the assemblages with which he worked in America.”[5] In 1692 he travelled back to London and to some degree assisted his father, Benjamin, in making two additions to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith: One on hymn singing and the other about the laying on of hands in Baptism.[6]

This confession was largely adhered to by Baptists in the Philadelphia association in the early 1700s. But it was formally adopted by many Baptist churches in America when in 1742 the Philadelphia Association voted to print these confessions up which was done by Benjamin Franklin in 1743.[7] This confession came to be known as the Philadelphia Confession of 1742 and is essentially a reprint of the 1689 London Baptist Confession with the two additional sections. Thus, the Particular Baptist influence, both in doctrine and in how likeminded churches ought to intentionally cooperate, was rooted in the formation of the Philadelphia Baptist Association.[8]

Leon McBeth notes that, “By mid-[18th]-century, the [Philadelphia] association referred to churches as ‘belonging to this association,’ offered advice to churches on both doctrinal and practical issues, sent ‘helps’ or representatives to assist in cases of local church discipline, and helped to accredit, and when need be to discredit, ministers.”[9] Thus, Baptists in America greatly benefited from the 17th-century thought of their English forefathers but had to also think through associational life for themselves in a slightly different historical context. Like the English Particular Baptists, they were zealous to maintain the autonomy of the local church all the while also actively promoting tangible cooperative efforts. How then did 18th century Baptists think associations should “work”? Benjamin Griffith helps answer that question.

“[T]he Reverend Benjamin Griffith, pastor of the Montgomery Baptist Church of Bucks County, Pennsylvania” composed A Short Treatise Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church.[10] In this work, after establishing the importance and power of a local church, he laid out the following in his section, “On the Communion of Churches”,

[S]uch particular congregational churches, constituted and organized according to the mind of Christ revealed in the New Testament, are all equal in power and dignity, and we read of no disparity between them, or subordination among them, that should make a difference between the acts of their mutual communion, so as the acts of one church should be acts of authority, and the acts of others should be acts of obedience or subjection, although they may vastly differ in gifts, abilities and usefulness.

 

Such particular distinct churches, agreeing in gospel doctrine and practice, may and ought to maintain communion together in many duties, which may tend to the mutual benefit and edification of the whole: and thereby one church that hath plenty of gifts, may and ought, if possible, to supply another that lacketh, Canticles 8:8. They may have mutual giving and receiving, Philippians 4:15. and mutual translation, recommendation or dismission of members from one church to another, as occasion may require. It is to be noted that persons called to office are not to be dismissed as officers, but as members; though another church may call such to the same office again.

 

By virtue also of such communion, the members of one such church may, where they are known, occasionally partake at the Lord’s table with a sister church. Yet notwithstanding such communion of churches, by voluntary consent and confederation, the officers of one particular church, may not act as officers in another church, in any act of government, without a particular call thereunto from the other church where they occasionally come.

It is expedient that particular churches constituted in the way and manner, and for the ends declared in the former part of this narrative, when they are planted by the providence of God, so as they may have opportunity and advantage so to do, should, by their mutual agreement, appoint proper times and places, to meet by their respective messengers or delegates, to consider of such things as may be for the common benefit of all such churches, for their peace, prosperity, and mutual edification, and what may be for the furtherance of the Gospel, and the interest of Christ in the world.

 

And forasmuch as it falls out many times that particular churches have to do with doubtful and difficult matters, or differences in point of doctrine or administration, like the church of Antioch of old, wherein either of the churches in general are concerned, or any one church in their peace, union or edification; or any member or members of a church are injured, in or by any proceeding in censures not agreeable to gospel rule and order; it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, should meet by their messengers and delegates to consider of and to give advice in or about such matters in difference; and their sentiments to be reported to all the churches concerned; and such messengers and delegates convened in the name of Christ, by the voluntary consent of the several churches in such mutual communion, may declare and determine of the mind of the Holy Ghost revealed in Scripture, concerning things in difference; and may decree the observation of things that are true and necessary, because revealed and appointed in the Scripture.

 

And the churches will do well to receive, own and observe such determinations, on the evidence and authority of the mind of the Holy Ghost in them, as in Acts 15:29. Yet such delegates thus assembled, are not intrusted [sic] or armed with any coercive power, or any superior jurisdiction over the churches concerned, so as to impose their determinations on them or their officers, under the penalty of excommunication, or the like.[11]

In this way, Griffith laid the theological groundwork for why and how local churches can cooperate together in associations.  This work served as a foundation for a statement Griffith produced in 1749, which was “signed by all of the delegates present at the annual meeting”.[12] This 1749 statement “made it clear…that the association had only the power to withdraw its fellowship; they might urge the churches to exclude members involved in erroneous practice or teaching, ‘but excommunicate they cannot.’ That power belongs only to the church.”[13]

Griffith’s statement both borrowed from the past and helped to cement a groundwork for the future. It was integrally connected to Christians of the 17th century, since, “In Griffith’s preface, he indicated that he had consulted works on church government by Benjamin Keach, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and Abel Morgan.”[14] Furthermore, as Baptists continued forming formal associations in America, they, like Griffith and those who had gone before him, were adamant that the ultimate ecclesiastical authority was the local church.

Earl Blackburn, a modern-day Reformed Baptist, echoes this sentiment when he writes, “An association of churches is not a denomination. An association has absolutely no power or authority over any local church, except to break fellowship with a disorderly church over doctrine or practice and to make known to others its actions toward the erring church and why its actions were taken. Its capacity and function is only advisory.”[15]

Similar to the 17th century General Assembly in England, the 18th Century Philadelphia Baptist Association “served as a doctrinal monitor” and “advised on Baptist practices.”[16] Also like the General Assembly of Particular Baptists from England it used money to help fund theological education and missions. “One purpose of associations was to extend the gospel to destitute areas, and by the 1760s the Philadelphia Association employed an ‘evangelist at large’ to plant new churches in needy areas.”[17] The minutes from the 1766 Philadelphia Association say this,

That it is most necessary for the good of the Baptist interest, that the Association have at their disposal every year a sum of money. Accordingly, it was further agreed: that the churches, henceforth, do make a collection every quarter, and send the same yearly to the Association, to be by them deposited in the hands of trustees; the interest whereof only to be them laid out every year in support of ministers travelling on the errand of the churches, or otherwise, as the necessities of said churches require.[18]

Torbet notes that, “The significance of the [Philadelphia] Association cannot be overemphasized, for without violating Baptist church autonomy it provided a source of guidance and unity at a critical period of organization in the denomination.”[19] In fact, it was the Philadelphia Baptist Association, standing on the shoulders of the 17th Century English Baptists, helped lay the groundwork for even larger associations of churches. By the 19th Century, state conventions were forming.

“The first Baptist state convention was formed in South Carolina (1821), followed by Georgia (1822), Virginia (1823), Alabama (1823), and North Carolina (1830). The idea of state conventions was a natural outgrowth of associational work”.[20] Thus, even large associations that continue to exist today, like the Southern Baptist Convention, owe their formation to the cooperative work of Baptists in the Philadelphia Association.


 

[1] A History of the Baptists, 212.

[2] https://www.pennepackbaptist.org/history.html

[3] A History of the Baptists, 210. See also, https://www.pennepackbaptist.org/history.html

[4] Ibid. Another Baptist historian, H. Leon McBeth, says, “Keach formed the Pennepek [sic] church in 1687”. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 1987), 240.

[5] Baptist Confessions of Faith, 348.

[6] The Baptist Heritage, 241.

[7] Baptist Confessions of Faith, 349.

[8] Brand and Hankins note that, “the first association of Baptists was formed in Philadelphia in 1707, largely as a result of the tireless work of Elias Keach.” One Sacred Effort, 63.

[9] The Baptist Heritage, 243.

[10] A History of the Baptists, 213.

[11] This work is dated, 1743. https://founders.org/polity/a-short-treatise-concerning-a-true-and-orderly-gospel-church-griffith/

[12] A History of the Baptists, 213.

[13] The Baptist Heritage, 244.

[14] Polity, 36.

[15] Denominations or Associations?, 27.

[16] The Baptist Heritage, 244-245.

[17] Ibid., 246.

[18] Denominations or Associations?, 59-60.

[19] A History of the Baptists, 214.

[20] Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn, and Michael A.G. Haykin, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 135.

One reply on “A Historical Basis for Baptist Cooperation – The Philadelphia Association”

Im a member of a Southern Baptist Church but really don’t understand the obsession with “local autonomy” as it’s heralded by the organization. It’s like a badge of honor (one ofthe few things the SBC takes pride in any more). It even comes out strong in this article. No matter how you word it, though, what you just described has very little practical difference from a Presbyterian form of government. They have as much local autonomy as you could reasonably ask for and (on paper at least) are accountable to the local congregations. Example: When a Presbyterian congregation deviates in practice from an agreed upon confession (just like the 1689 in view) what do you think the session does? Send them to jail? No… They eventually disassociate with them. The primary difference is that they pull all endorsement and funding in name and deed. How is this form of government unhelpful or even much different from the Particular/Confessional Baptist? I’d argue that this illegitimate focus on autonomy and what that looks like is precisely why the SBC is in the state that its in and why you guys are writing these articles to begin with.

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