LOCAL ASSOCIATIONS AND GENERAL ASSEMBLIES.
There is some obscurity hanging over the origin of Local Associations. That they sprang up during the time of the Commonwealth, and that they rapidly multiplied when once the idea was broached, are facts abundantly attested; but which Association can rightly claim to be the first, there is no small difficulty in determining. The Confession of the Seven Churches in London, published in 1644, hints at the idea of association in the forty-seventh article:
“Although the particular congregations be distinct and several bodies, every one as a compact and knit city within itself; yet are they all to walk by one rule of truth; so also they, (by all means convenient), are to have counsel and help one of another, if necessity require it, as members of one body, in the common faith, under Christ their head.”
But how far this “counsel and help” led to united action, does not appear. Grantham’s declaration, in his Christianismus Primitivus, published long after Local Associations and General Assemblies had become common among at least one section of the Baptist denomination, exactly expresses the purpose which was contemplated in establishing them.\
“The mutual consultation of many churches together, shows not the superiority of churches one above another; but only the brotherly interest which they have in the strength of each other, and the duty which lieth upon the churches one to help another in their difficulties. And, doubtless, her strength thus united is the most powerful means under heaven (through the virtue of Christ’s promise to be with them as His Church), to stop the current of heresy, and to keep the churches in unity both in doctrine and manners.”
The special cause which led, some half dozen or more years after the publication of the Confession of the Seven Churches, to a general desire for greater union among the Particular Baptists, was the earnest letter received by the London churches from the churches in Ireland. In this letter they say, “that their beloved and faithful brother, John Vernon, the bearer of the letter,” will, through God’s blessing,
“be suddenly with you. … His conversation hath been in zeal and faithfulness; the Lord having put it into the hearts of all his congregations in Ireland to have a more revived correspondence with each other by letter and loving epistles, in which practice we found great advantage, not only by weakening Satan’s suggestions and jealousies, but it hath brought a closer union and knitting of heart; and, which is not an inferior consideration, we have hereby been enabled feelingly and knowingly to present each other’s wants and conditions before our God. In the same manner, we shall be enabled to answer our duty towards you, and you towards us, and so bear each other’s burdens, and fulfil the law of Christ in our very near relation. We hereby earnestly request the same brotherly correspondence with you and from you; and, by your means, with all the rest of the churches in England, Scotland, and Wales, whom we trust will be provoked to the same things, which we hope may be mutually obtained once in three months.”
The same letter also asks for “a perfect account of the churches of Christ owned in communion with them;” and offers “one request more, if it hath not been lately practised;” namely,
“that they would send two or more faithful brethren, well acquainted with the discipline and order of the Lord’s house, able to speak seasonable words, suited to the necessities of the people, to visit, comfort, and confirm all the flock of our Lord Jesus, that are, or have given up, their names to be under His rule and government in England, Scotland, and Wales.”
This letter produced a powerful effect upon the churches in London. After a day of fasting and prayer, they agreed to adopt its suggestions. Inquiries were at once made of the several churches in different parts of the island; but we have no means of ascertaining the result. The letter sent to the Welsh churches has been preserved; and from this we learn, that “the several churches of Christ in London,” as the senders describe themselves, were anxious “to obtain a full account of all the churches in England, Scotland, and Wales;” and for the purpose of gathering this information from the Principality, they urge their Welsh churches to visit the several weak and scattered brethren in their part, and near adjacent, that it may be known “what churches and societies they at London may groundedly communicate with.”
Although there is no extant record of the result of this correspondence, it is a fair inference, that the churches which mooted the question of union by letter and visits, and set the example of it, speedily adopted other means of periodical association with one another. If only this inference could be established, it would entitle the London Baptist Association to claim the foremost place among the many Associations that have since been formed in England, Scotland, and Wales.