GENERAL BAPTIST ASSEMBLIES.
Before the period of which we are writing, the General Baptists had felt that, while their Local Associations were useful in their several districts, more concerted action and general co-operation was needed than these Associations sup-plied. To meet this want they established General Assemblies, which were usually held in London. The Assemblies were composed, like the Local Associations, of messengers, elders, or ministers, and brethren. Mr. Grantham enters very carefully into the question of the claims and character of “General Assemblies” in his remarkable and scholarly treatise. In this we are shown that Local Associations are conventions of the pastors of as many churches as by reason of vicinity of country, and acquaintance with each other, who, without the disturbance of the public peace, meet together;” and that “General Assemblies are meetings for mutual consultation of many churches upon emergent occasions.” He then treats “of the question, Who hath power to convene General Assemblies?” — answering it by saying, that this is equally pertaining to churches, and all pastors; but that which calls the Assembly is, the emergency of the occasion.” The second and third questions he discusses are these: —
“How far agreements made by a General Assembly do oblige the churches concerned by their representatives;” and “What sort of Christians are to give voice deliberative and decisive in General Councils and Assemblies.”
The “Orthodox Creed” thus describes General Councils or Assemblies:
“General Councils, or Assemblies, consisting of bishops, elders, and brethren of the several churches of Christ, and being legally convened, and met together out of all the churches, and the churches appearing by their representatives, make but one church, and have lawful rights and suffrage in this general meeting, or Assembly, to act in the name of Christ, it being of Divine authority, and is the best means under heaven to preserve unity, to prevent heresy, and superintendency among or in any congregation whatsoever within its limits, or jurisdiction. And to such a meeting, or Assembly, appeals ought to be made, in case any injustice be done, or heresy and schism is countenanced in any particular congregation of Christ; and the decisive voice in such General Assemblies is the major part; and such General Assemblies have lawful power to hear and determine, and also to excommunicate.” (Article xxxix.)
The date of the first Assembly of the General Baptists is uncertain; but Mr. Grantham speaks of Assemblies in 1671, as already established and approved; and in the treatise just quoted, published in 1678, he says, after mentioning the meeting recorded in Acts 15., “according to this precedent,” (or as he spells it, “President,”) the baptized churches in this age and nation (although unworthy to compare with those worthies) have kept an Assembly-General for many years, for the better settlement of the churches to which they are related.” There is no mention of the General Assemblies of the Particular Baptist Churches during this period, except the words of Grantham be regarded as intimating their existence. The Assembly of the General Baptists adhered to Grantham’s definition, and only met on “emergent occasions.” During a period of nearly forty years (from 1689 to 1728), there were only twenty-two meetings.
That Grantham had great faith in the value of these Assemblies is patent to every reader of his books. In one of them he thus writes:
“They are, through the blessing of God, the best expedient under the sun for composing divisions in the churches. Here the liberty of Christians should be, yea, must be maintained; though they differ right much in their opinions in matters of religion. We know well, that, not only the Christians in the ages bordering on the primitive, but even the Apostles of our Lord, did allow Christians of very different persuasions, freely to deliberate on things propounded in such Assemblies. For my part I could heartily wish that all the congregations of Christians in the world, that are baptized according to the appointment of Christ, would make one Consistory, at least sometimes, to consider the matters in difference between them. For if this be not admitted, there are no means remaining, as I conceive, to heal their divisions; and consequently to obtain that peace which should rule in the hearts of all God’s people, because they are thereunto called in one body.”
The system of Local Associations and General Assemblies gave rise, says Adam Taylor, to a custom of appeal from the decision of particular churches. When any member thought himself aggrieved by the proceedings of his church, he might appeal to two or more neighbouring churches, and ask them to hear and judge the case. If the appeal were received, a meeting of the deputies of each of the religious societies, or churches, to which the appeal was made, was appointed; and, after hearing both parties at length, judgment was given. But if either party still remained dissatisfied, the whole question could be brought before the Local Association to which they belonged. There was yet a final appeal from the Local Association to the General Assembly. The discontented considering, after a time, that they had a right of appeal, and differences becoming thereby protracted, and a captious spirit engendered, the Assembly of the General Baptists at length resolved that no such cases should be received by them, unless with the mutual consent and request of all parties concerned. A further danger to the independence of the individual churches was checked, by restraining the power of both Local Associations and General Assemblies to offering advice. The decision therefore, in either case, only challenged respectful attention from the wisdom, experience, and piety of the persons who composed such meetings.
“We ought,” says Grantham, “to consider with great respect, what is concluded by a General Council of Christ’s true ministers; yet we may lawfully doubt of what they deliver, unless they confirm it by the Word of the Lord.”