THE LONDON ASSOCIATION.
In 1702 the Western Association met at Trowbridge, at which it was agreed “that a letter should be sent to the London churches to excite them to renew their association with the churches in the country.” This was not the first time that the Western brethren had striven to fan the expiring zeal of the London churches, and it is hard to conjecture what led the latter to pass over in silence these various overtures. But though the appeals did not lead to a renewal of the connection between the two, it incited the ministers in London to form an Association of their own churches. In 1704 thirteen churches agreed to this proposal, and met on the 17th of April, at Lorimers’ Hall. These were — Broad-street, Old Gravel-lane, Wapping; Pinner’s Hall; Goat Yard-passage, Horsley Down, Southwark; Pennington-street, Virginia-street; Church-lane, Limehouse; Artillery-lane, Spitalfields; Paul’s, Shadwell; Devonshire-square; Little Wild-street; Bagnio-court; Collier’s Rents, White-street, Southwark; Lorimers’ Hall; and Joiners’ Hall, Friars’-lane, Thames-street. Rev. John Piggot, minister of Little Wild-street, preached a sermon from “^Romans 14:19, which was afterwards printed under the title, “Union and Peace recommended.” Rev. Richard Adams, minister of Devonshire-square (formerly incumbent of the parish church Humberstone, near Leicester, and one of Cromwell’s Triers), was chosen moderator. The letters from the churches were read, each of which submitted some subjects for the discussion and decision of the Association. To regulate the business, it was at once agreed that whatever the Assembly might adopt should only be regarded as advice, and not be binding on the churches any further than they should severally determine; that each speaker should stand up,
“address his discourse to the moderator, and no other person shall speak until he sits down; that no opinion wherein any of the churches represented in this Assembly differ from the rest shall be controverted in the Assembly;”
“the several matters recommended to the consideration of this Assembly by letters from the churches shall be considered in the same order in which the letters were received.”
The meetings lasted three days. Various questions affecting the welfare of the London churches were discussed. one referred to the rule to be observed in the reception by one church of members from another. It was suggested that such reception “should not be without recommendation, or, at least, without sending messengers to the church from which such persons come;” and that the reasons for desiring such dismission should also be sent to the church to which they belong. Another tried to check the migratory tendency of London churches, “the flying camp,” as the Rev. John Newton designated them. The Assembly agreed:
“That the members of each church ought ordinarily to attend the worship of God in the church to which they stand related, and to make a common practice of deserting the assemblies to which they belong,”
— for the sake of running hither and thither after other ministers, however gifted —
“is a great discouragement to the ministers of their churches; that it occasions the neglect of the poor among them, and that the continuance of such a practice has a tendency to weaken, and will, perhaps, in time, issue in the dissolution of some churches.”
A third subject arose out of the separations and secessions which occasionally take place in Congregational churches; partly upon a change of ministers; and partly through a difference of judgment on matters of doctrine or discipline. To meet such cases, it was resolved:
“That in case the minor part of any church break off their communion from that church, the church state is to be accounted to remain with the major part. And in case the major part of any church be fundamentally corrupted with heresy and immorality, the minor part may and ought to separate from such a degenerate society; and either join themselves to some regular church or churches, or else, if they are a competent number, constitute a church state by a solemn covenant among themselves.”
A fourth subject sprang out of the controversy then raging about Dr. Tobias Crisp’s Antinomian sermons. Here is a single specimen of his opinions: —
“Let me speak freely to you; and, in doing so, tell you that the Lord hath no more to lay to an elect person; yet, in the height of iniquity, and in the excess of riot, and committing all the abominations that can be committed, I say, even then, when an elect person runs such a course, the Lord hath no more to last to that person’s charge than God hath to lay to the sin of the believer; nay, God hath no more to lay to the charge of that person than He hath to lay to the charge of a saint triumphant in glory.”
This abominable doctrine, utterly subversive of all morality, greatly shocked the London Assembly, and by the following decision they strongly condemned Crisp’s Antinomian principles, and supported the principles which were called, by his friends, the Neonomian opinions. They said: —
“It is the opinion of this Assembly that the doctrine of sanctification by the impartation of the holiness of Christ’s nature does, in its consequences, render inherent holiness by the Holy Spirit unnecessary, and tends to overthrow natural, as well as revealed religion.”
A fifth subject referred to the maintenance of ministers. During the time of persecution under the Stuarts, many ministers had followed some secular calling, and had not received any income from their churches. The men who followed them often found the people unable, perhaps, also, unwilling, to furnish what the first General Assembly calls, in its Confession, “a comfortable supply.” Either, therefore, with a view of shaming the churches into a more generous treatment of their ministers; or, in order to supplement the narrow and inadequate income they received, the following resolution was adopted —
“That it be recommended to the several associate churches represented by this Assembly, that each church do make an annual collection for the relief of such ministers in and about London, dwelling within the bills of mortality, as have but a small allowance from the churches to which they belong.”
The sixth matter of business referred to the imposition of hands at the ordination of elders and deacons; the Assembly declared it to be “an ordinance of Jesus Christ still in force.” The seventh subject related to the education of ministers. A fund for this special purpose was deemed “highly useful,” in order the better to fit for the ministry
“those who are blessed with promising gifts; and also for furnishing others, who have not time to attain to a knowledge of the tongues, and some other parts of useful learning, with such English books as may be thought most proper for their assistance and improvement.”
Each church was recommended, for this purpose, either to make collections, or offer subscriptions. The eighth resolution enjoined the frequent observance “of days of fasting and prayer, as much tending to the edification of the churches;” and suggested that not only should “each congregation” set apart such days, but that it would “sometimes be better for several churches to assemble together, when this can be conveniently attained.” It is, therefore, apparent how anxious the London Assembly was to promote the peace and permanent welfare of the churches.
The next meeting was held at Joiners’ Hall, in March, 1705. For some cause or other four out of the thirteen churches had meanwhile withdrawn from the London Assembly — Broad Street, Devonshire Square, Bagnio Court, and Lorimers’ Hall; and that only one other church in London had joined them: Paul’s-alley, Barbican, of which Mr. Richard Allen was minister. There were several other churches in London, but they also stood aloof, perhaps afraid of the possible attempt to infringe upon their congregational liberty, or weary with the too frequent discussions which unwise and self-willed men had caused in them.
Rev. Joseph Stennett was the preacher, and was also chosen moderator at this second meeting of the London Assembly. After the reading of the letters from the churches, four brethren — John Ward, pastor of Luton; Ebenezer Wilson, just invited from Broadmead, by the church near Spitalfields; Mark Key, assistant minister of Devonshire-square church; and Benjamin Cooper, of Broad-street, Wapping — requested to be present, a request which was at once complied with. The preliminary articles of the former meeting were re- adopted, and also the circular letter. They were called upon to act on the suggestion made in reference to secessions at the first meeting; the particular case being that of a congregation at Winchester House, near St. Mary Overie’s Dock, Southwark. The members of this congregation were chiefly seceders from other churches in London, and who held what our Baptist historian calls “the unscriptural crudities and unhallowed opinions of Dr. Crisp.”
How long the London Assembly continued its meetings is not on record, but it has been conjectured that it dwindled away after the deaths of Mr. Joseph Stennett, and Mr. John Piggott, who both died in 1713, and within a few months of each other.