THE GENERAL ASSOCIATION.
In 1696, the subject was again resumed. The Protesters insisted on Mr. Caffyn’s being brought to trial; and if found guilty excluded from the communion of the churches in the Assembly. A third time the majority decided in Mr. Caffyn’s favour, re-affirming, in fact, their former opinion. The Pro- testers now withdrew, and soon after published “The reasons for their separation.” They also resolved to hold an annual meeting in London, at the time of the General Assembly, to consist of the messengers, elders, and brethren of the churches which approved of their secession. This meeting they styled the General Association; to distinguish it, as they say, “from particular associations held in divers parts of the country.” The first meeting was held in May, 1697, and was attended by the representatives of the churches of White’s Alley, London; Deptford, Kent; Rainham, Essex; Wilbram, Cambridgeshire; Aylesbury, Cuddington, and Berkhampstead, Bucks. The following year they were joined by the Church under Dr. W. Russell, London, and the congregations at Brainford, Essex, and Ashford, Kent.
This did not end the dispute. At the Assembly in 1697, Mr. Amory presented a letter from the Western Association, earnestly calling upon it to bring Mr. Caffyn to immediate examination; and the following year Mr. Garrett brought up a similar request from the Northamptonshire churches, and Mr. Hooke from the churches in Lincolnshire. Mr. Caffyn is allowed to explain himself for the fourth time. So unsatisfactory were his explanations that Mr. Amory said to Mr. Caffyn, before all the Assembly,
“that God, whom my brother Caffyn worships, is none of my God; neither will I worship Him. That Christ that he worships is none of my Christ; neither will I worship Him.”
The old expedient was again adopted; the sentiments ascribed to Mr. Caffyn were declared to be heretical, an investigation, however, being promised at the next Assembly in 1700. Meanwhile several additional churches joined the seceders, and others were only waiting the issue of the promised trial.
The trial came to nothing. An “Expedient,” as it was called, was proposed as a possible basis of union, not only with the seceders (who had already been admonished as “walking disorderly, and desired to return”), but with those who were still dissatisfied in the Assembly. This consisted of an obscure and ambiguous resolution, drawn up by four members of the two parties in the Assembly, and was offered to, but rejected by the General Association. The breach was now fast widening between the disputants. In some little temper, ill befitting the grave character of the Assembly, they “agreed to stand by what they did in 1696;” and also declared that those who published any of their own “conceptions concerning the expressions in the ‘Expedient,’ should be regarded as disturbers, and be accountable to the Assembly.” Two years afterwards the charges were again renewed by the Northamptonshire churches; and a fifth time the Assembly declared Mr. Caffyn’s statements satisfactory.
The Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire churches now went over in a body to the General Association.
A temporary reconciliation was afterwards brought about by a book entitled, A Vindication of the Ancient General Assembly. This book was laid before the General Association meeting at White’s Alley, in June 8th, 1704; and, as a consequence, they sent messengers to the General Assembly then sitting at Goodman’s-fields, inquiring how far it was prepared to stand by the overtures made in the Vindication. The same day the Assembly replied, that though they had not in any way, as a body, been concerned in the publication of that book, they accepted its overtures, and hoped the General Association would also. A conference ensued between four brethren from each party; a number of articles of faith and conditions of union were drawn up, and agreed to; and the next day, the members of the General Assembly and the General Association met as one body.
The union, after all, was only seeming, and not real. The Assembly had, throughout, protested against the errors ascribed to Mr. Caffyn, although adhering so tenaciously to him; but the General Association determined that, upon the first sign of any breach of the new basis of union, if they were refused a hearing, or could obtain no redress, they would resume their meetings. This actually took place a few years after.
The General Assembly, thus seriously weakened as to numbers, gradually became weaker in other ways. The conciliatory and yet inflexible Scripturists were succeeded, as one after another the older men were called away to their reward, by a class of men who carried their speculations farther than Caffyn ever ventured. Greater prominence was now given, by the more popular and learned men, to “right reason;” and the liberty which insisted on retaining men known to differ very broadly from the earlier views of the General Baptists, speedily showed its effects. By degrees, the majority of the ministers became Anti-trinitarians; and it is as an Anti-trinitarian body that the shadow of the Assembly of the old General Baptists still continues to meet in London every Whitsuntide. The Lincolnshire churches who united in the General Association joined the New Connexion of General Baptists in 1770, and the other churches have either dwindled away, or have, like Ashford, Rainham, and others, become united with the various county Associations of Particular Baptist churches.