THE MIDLAND ASSOCIATION.
The Midland Association of Particular Baptist Churches was formed in 1655, at Warwick. A preliminary meeting was held on the third of May, when the pastors and messengers of the following churches agreed upon “Sixteen Articles of Faith and Order:” Warwick, Morton, Bourton-on-the-water, Alcester, Tewkesbury, Hook Norton, and Derby. It is supposed that the excellent and devoted minister of Warwick, Rev. Daniel King, was the chief agent in securing the formation of this ancient Association. The articles which had been unanimously agreed upon, were taken back by the pastors to their several churches, to be examined and approved; and on the 26th June of the same year, the Midland Association again met at Moreton-in-the-Marsh. The assembled brethren then formally adopted the Sixteen Articles, appending their names on behalf of the churches they represented. In substance these Articles agree with the Confession of the Seven Churches. After this statement of their basis of union, the Association determined the objects of their union.
“The churches were to be helpful to each other;
First: in giving advice, after serious consultation and deliberation, in matters and controversies remaining doubtful to any particular church, according to the plain example of the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch. (Acts 15:23, &c.)
Secondly; in sending their gifted brethren to use their gifts for the edification of the churches that need the same, as they shall see it to be reasonable, as the Church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch. Acts 15:22.
Thirdly; in giving and receiving also, in case of the poverty and want of any particular church, as plainly doth appear in the approved and due acting of the Churches of the Gentiles towards the Church at Jerusalem. – Romans 15:26.
Fourthly; in a joint carrying on of any part of the work of the Lord, as is commanded to the churches, as they shall have opportunity to join therein, to the Glory of God. See Corinthians 5:19-23.
Fifthly; in watching over each other and considering each other for good, in respect of purity of doctrine, exercise of love and good conversation, being all members of the same body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12), who, therefore, ought to have care one for another (ver. 25), especially considering how the glory of God is concerned in their standing and holy conversation. The churches now associated are desired to take these things into consideration, and to signify by their messengers, at their next meeting, how far they close with the same, and what they judge expedient to be further considered and done, for the glory of God and the good of the people.”
In autumn of the same year the Midland Association again met at Moreton; and the following year three meetings were held; but it appears to have been their plan rather to hold their gatherings half-yearly. In 1658 they assembled in Easter week at Alcester, and appointed their second meeting to be held at Moreton in September. It is not certain whether their forebodings on the death of Cromwell did not occasion this second meeting to be omitted. They certainly met in the early part of 1659, after which time their meetings ceased for about thirty years, owing to the persecutions of all classes of Dissenters by Charles the Second and James the Second.
In order to give efficiency to their Association, the Sixteen Articles, with Scripture proof-passages, were printed and extensively circulated among the churches, the Baptist families of that period being diligent to have them read in their house-holds, and compared with the Word of God. They were also careful to admit only such churches into their Association as approved of the Sixteen Articles, and particularly objected to the “Free-willers,” as the General Baptists were then often called. Written copies of their proceedings, or, as they styled them, “their Conclusions and Results,” after every meeting, were circulated among the churches, in order to keep up an interest in the Association. The ministers and messengers, we are told in one of their Records, were very exemplary in this particular duty. The churches themselves frequently set apart a whole day for fasting and prayer previous to the Association, to ask God’s blessing to rest upon the meetings.
One of the founders of this Association, Rev. James Wilmot, of Hook Norton, was one of the many hundreds of sufferers during the persecutions under Charles the Second. Crosby says:
“Mr. James Wilmot, of Hook Norton, and Mr. Charles Archer, of Sweakly, in the county of Oxford, joint pastors of a baptized congregation meeting at Hook Norton, were great sufferers for their nonconformity. About the year 1664, they were taken at their meeting, and carried to the Castle of Oxford. At another time they were sent to Whitney Gaol. Mr. Wilmot was fined twenty pounds, for which all his goods were seized. They, not finding enough on the premises to satisfy them, seized upon the goods of Mr. Humphrey Gillit, a woolman, who was taken at the same meeting with him. Mr. Wilmot’s father, a zealous Churchman, went to Sir Thomas Pennystone, the justice, who committed his son, and desired his release. The justice replied, ‘ He shall rot in gaol.’ Says Mr. Wilmot, ‘Another justice had said the same, but he is now dead.’ ‘Though he be dead,’ replied Sir Thomas, ‘yet his work shall not die.’ Mr. Thorp, the gaoler at Oxford, was most severe. He would not permit them to pray together; and if they craved but a blessing on their meat, he would come in a great rage and disturb them, saying, ‘ What! are you preaching over your victuals?’ The goods of Mr. Wilmot, who had been twice imprisoned in Oxford Gaol, were carried to Chipping Norton, and there publicly cryed for sale, on several market days; but none would bid for them. Then they were carried to Swansford, to one of the informer’s houses, who could make no money of them; and in the end they came again to Hook Norton, and proclaimed there that if anyone would lay down twenty shillings, they should have them all; a friend of Mr. Wilmot’s did so, and he had all his goods again. When Mr. Wilmot was released from Whitney Gaol, they excommunicated him, and several writs were issued against him. But he, being informed of them, absconded, and so escaped their hands.”
Mr. Eccles, the pastor of the Bromsgrove Church, which united with the Midland Association after the Revolution, also suffered for his opinions. He was greatly ill-used, was put into Worcester Gaol, and would have remained there, but for the generous behaviour of Mr. Swift, one of the Members of Parliament for the county of Worcester, who became his bondsman for a thousand pounds, by which means he obtained his release.
The Midland Association was reconstructed in 1690, and has ever since annually held its meetings with great regularity. During the first thirty or forty years after this period, the original doctrinal basis of the Association was tacitly acknowledged; but various causes led to subsequent deviations; the scarcity of the copies of the Confession of Faith; the absence of any authorised record of the proceedings of the Association; and the fact that for a long period the circular letters were only written.
“The dregs of Arminianism were,” according to the fears expressed in the Bromsgrove Letter to the Association in 1787, “received by some of the ministers and churches of the Association;” and in 1790, “the Association deemed it proper to resolve — that no church be admitted but such as profess to believe the doctrines maintained in the heading to the circular letter, namely — personal election, particular redemption, free justification, efficacious grace, and the final perseverance of the saints.”
Bromsgrove, it should be mentioned, is the only one of the nine churches that united in the reconstruction of the Association in 1690, which still continues in it, and is therefore the mother church; and of the seven churches which formed the Association in 1655, one is extinct, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, and the remaining six are now united with other county Associations. A great number of the circular letters from 1713 down to the present day are still in existence, and reveal the anxiety which has been uniformly held for the devotion and piety of its individual churches. In 1752 the Association met at Birmingham, and in their letter to the churches that year they recommend —
“As a testimony of Christian love, let all the churches spare their minister at least one Lord’s-day in the year, to supply destitute churches. We beg you to be content for that day with-out a supply, if none can be had.”
Unfortunately the original Association Book has been lost, and the present book only dates back to 1817.
Most of the Local Associations among the Particular Baptists virtually contemplated similar objects in their union to those formally announced by the Midland Association, and with these objects the Local Associations of the General Baptists substantially agreed. Adam Taylor, the General Baptist historian, says, that the usual business transacted at their Local Associations related to
the reformation of inconsistent or immoral conduct, whether in ministers or private Christians;
the prevention or suppression of heresy;
the reconciling of differences between members and churches;
giving advice in difficult cases, whether respecting individuals or societies;
proposing plans of usefulness;
recommending cases that required pecuniary support; and
devising the most effectual means of promoting the spread of Christianity in the world at large, but especially in their own churches.
It is not easy to ascertain how many Associations existed at the time of the Commonwealth, since new ones were constantly being formed, and old ones dissolved; but there is good ground for affirming that they were found in every part of the country. Some of them dwindled away soon after the Restoration of Charles the II.; but others continued to meet, despite the oppressive and cruel measures that were enacted to crush out Dissenters of every name. In 1678, for example, the Buckinghamshire General Baptist Association was attended by fifty-four messengers, elders, and brethren. In the same year a new Particular Baptist Association was formed at Hempstead, Herts, with which were united the Baptist church in Petty France, London, and several churches in the country. Dr. Nehemiah Coxe, on his return to his church in London,
“gave an account of the comfortable issue of the meeting of the messengers of the associated churches, and of their desire that for the future some brethren on behalf of this (Petty France) and other congregations in the city, might be, as occasion is offered, appointed to assist at their meetings.”
The records of the Petty France Church tell us that these meetings were held half-yearly, and that one or both their ministers generally attended them, “to assist there, on behalf of the church.” The “County” Association, as Ivimey calls this Particular Association, continued to meet now in the country, and once in every few years in London, until 1682, when a great storm of persecution came down upon the church in Petty France. This minute, passed in the spring of the same year, will illustrate the character of the church: —
“In regard to the uncertainty of our obtaining conveniency of meeting as formerly, by reason of the present persecutions, and our exclusion from Petty France, that the contribution for the poor be made by monthly subscription, and our usual times of breaking bread be altered from three weeks, to once every month, to be computed from this day, May 27, 1682.”
The “County” Association managed to find some quiet nook in London the following April in which to hold their half-yearly meeting, the last as far as we have been able to ascertain.