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James Dodson

Before proceeding to state the difference between the original profession of the Secession, and that which has been lately adopted by General Associate Synod, it may be proper to make a few observations relative to the change of public standards and the introduction of new books declaratory of the principles of churches, and the terms of religious communion in them. The following considerations appear entitled to particular attention on this subject.

1. The contents of such books are of greater importance, in reference to the interests of religion, the state of churches, and the duty of church-members, than doctrines or writings of a more private nature. Being of public authority, and settled as subordinate standards, they become the common sentiments of the whole body, and are likely to have greater prevalence and permanency. If any mistakes or errors, therefore, be admitted into them, these must prove of more hurtful consequence, than if they were adopted only by individuals, or occasionally taught. The latter may soon die away, and a church at large may not be infected by them; but, in the other case, being publicly supported and taught, the infection spreads, and there is danger of its being conveyed, as a leprosy, from generation to generation. As books of this kind are employed as standards, or a rule by which the doctrines and practice of a church are to be measured, if the standard be wrong, the rule crooked, all that is measured by it or conformed to it, must be wrong and crooked.

2. As all books of human composure, Confessions, Testimonies, &c., are to be adapted to the necessities and circumstances of times and the situation of churches so it is readily admitted that they may vary, and be subject to alteration as to their form, and particular matters contained in them; yet, in churches already constituted, and provided with these in a manner competent for maintaining a faithful profession and communion, changes in these ought not to be attempted, even as to their words and form, lightly, and without sufficient and urgent reasons. Much less ought those who are in office in a church to think, that this discretionary power can be lawfully employed by them to change any article of faith already received, or to loose the obligation which they and other church-members had previously come under to certain standard-books, or particular forms of religious profession, agreeing to the word of God. Nor can they claim a right arbitrarily to impose upon any a new system, different in its import. They are not lords of men’s faith: they "can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth." They cannot dispense with the lawful subscriptions, engagements, and vows by which persons are bound.

Churches, with all belonging to them, having made a profession of religion, and with their mouth, their hand, or deed, having received and engaged to abide by a "form of sound words," a system expressing their faith and duty, have done so to God himself, and not to men, and to him they must perform what they promised. They cannot, therefore, be warranted to change or renounce what they have adopted and subscribed, merely at the call, or upon the authority of men. One principal design of these solemn bonds is to prevent persons from relinquishing any part of their profession, or falling in with changes in a time of general defection by the body of a church. They had a powerful influence upon faithful ministers and professors of the church of Scotland in former times; and were urged by them for exposing the iniquity of innovations in the reformed doctrine, worship, or discipline, and for exculpating from the charges of obstinacy, insubordination and schism, those who rejected them, and persisted in their former profession and practice.[1]

3. In such changes, a church may be justly chargeable with declining from her principles and engagements, even when there may not be a direct renunciation or formal contradiction of these. If any doctrine which has formerly been expressly adopted, any evil testified against, or particular duty engaged to, the retaining of which is still as necessary and seasonable as before—be dropped or omitted in the testimony or engagements of the church, when this appears to be intentionally done, and there is ground to conclude that it is with the design of giving up with, and tacitly condemning what had formerly been professed and engaged to, such conduct cannot be clear from unfaithfulness and apostacy. It is contrary to the express injunctions of our Lord, to every church and individual; "that which thou hast, hold fast." It is the common way in which defection is made from truth and duty, in lukewarm and declining times. In this manner churches may drop one article after another from their testimony, as they become cool towards them, or contract a distaste at them, and may rid themselves of them with greater ease than by open condemnation.

General doctrines, and the approbation or condemnation of events not of a late date, must still remain the same, notwithstanding more recent occurrences. If additions to a Testimony be found needful and seasonable in respect of some new occurrences, this can be no proper reason or excuse for changing the state and sentiments of such a Testimony as to former times and events. If right before upon these heads, it must still continue so. Persons may approve of such additions, and the application of principles to recent events, and at the same time may condemn a change and departure from what was formerly adopted and professed. If, under the pretext of making additions, the main design is to alter and new-model the former parts of a Confession and Testimony, there is great reason to complain of unfair dealing.[2] The changes introduced into the books of the Secession, which are ground of offence and controversy, will be found to respect chiefly such things as are not affected by any late occurrences, and are as proper objects of testimony now as at the beginning; they respect principles formerly owned, and the judgment passed on former transactions.—The unfaithfulness and defection is still more manifest and glaring, when any article which a church had engaged to adhere to is directly renounced, or contradicted by what is introduced into new books and later subscriptions.

4. If in the books introduced in the room of former ones, and of which an unlimited approbation is required, there should be but one article of truth injured, one doctrine changed, or one point of duty to which any were formerly bound denied, either directly or indirectly, plainly or more covertly, no person can conscientiously adopt or subscribe them, however many excellent truths they may otherwise contain, yea, even though the great body of these books was scriptural and seasonably exhibited. This would be like a dead fly in the apothecary’s box, which pollutes and renders unsavoury the most precious ointment and odoriferous perfumes. Many are ready to adopt a testimony without further examination, when they see it contain a great number of truths consonant to the word of God, and opposed to prevailing errors; it is not, however, thus that they would wish to act in the affairs of this life. Although a table were covered with many desirable and wholesome dishes, if there was but one among them of which they were required to partake, that was poisonous, this would be reckoned a sufficient reason for abstaining. If a person was required to set his hand to an affidavit or writing in which he found one falsehood, though all the rest might be true, he could not, as an honest man, subscribe it; much less if it contained a number of falsehoods, or one which pervaded the whole.

5. As a change of standards and public formularies, in the forementioned cases, ought never to be made but upon an evident call, and with the greatest care, so there are situations in which particular churches and religious bodies may be placed, which render this highly improper and inexpedient, as well as times in which the attempt is unseasonable and justly suspicious.

In judging of the seasonableness, the danger or safety of such an attempt, there is more to be attended unto than the abstract lawfulness or practicability. No wise general would think of taking down ramparts or walls of a fortress, with the view of rebuilding them after a more regular and modern form, if the enemy were in sight, or there was ground to suspect the fidelity and constancy of those who were within. In a time when people are given to change, when novelties and pretended improvements are eagerly followed, when, instead of steadiness and attachment to sound principles, there are strong symptoms of instability, and a disposition to throw off bonds, and renounce former attainments, there is reason to suspect that such changes either proceed from such a spirit, or tend to foster it, and to make way for subsequent and more extensive alterations. He must be a stranger to the present state of the religious world in general, and also of the Secession body, who has not discerned the prevalence of a disposition of this kind. In such eases, one innovation prepares for another, and is approved by many, chiefly as it renders subsequent ones more practicable and easy. Obsta principiis, is at such a time a salutary maxim; and those who do not resist at the beginning, may find their opposition at subsequent stages fruitless, and may be silenced by their own principles and example; as soldiers who have weakly and rashly abandoned an entrenchment or outwork to the enemy, have their own artillery turned against them.[3]

The situation of certain religious bodies with respect to others, who may have common standards with them, to which all are bound, and to which they still profess to adhere, may render changes very improper. It is known that the Westminster Confession, &c., were agreed upon, in pursuance of a solemn oath, to be the common standards of uniformity in religion among the three kingdoms. After such attainments, accompanied with mutual stipulations solemnly ratified, particular parties are not left at the same liberty as formerly. Scotland had formerly to complain of breach of covenant and league on the part of England, in the innovations of the sectaries, and also in the alterations introduced at the Restoration and subsequent settlements there. The Secession body have distinguished themselves above others by adherence to this covenanted uniformity; they testified against departures from it among various classes and denominations of persons, and professed to wait for the time of reformation, when all should again return to it. By departing from this, stating exceptions to common and received doctrines, and forming new standards of their own, they expose themselves more heavily to the charges which they have brought against others, and afford them a plausible excuse for future departures, by pleading that they cannot reasonably be secluded ‘from the same privilege’ and liberties. This must be attended with very hurtful effects. There is no longer any common standard of a subordinate kind to which both can appeal which (however lightly many may now affect to talk of this) must be of great utility for settling differences between divided churches, as well as those which arise among persons of the same particular communion. Thus, too, a bar is laid in the way of a desirable re-union, even although all the original grounds of secession and separate communion were removed, and a new partition-wall is raised between the parties, which threatens to divide them for ever.

Religious societies which are in a state of separation from national churches are in danger, through process of time, of losing sight of their original claims, and from an opinion that the grounds of their separation will become stronger in proportion to the number of the differences which subsist between them, are ready to have recourse to new ones which are incompatible with their former contendings and original constitution. In this manner have the Dissenters in England deserted their original principles, and completely changed their ground. Instead of resting in a testimony against those corruptions which adhered to the church of England, in doctrine, worship, or government, and pleading for the removal of these, and a reformation according to the word of God, the example of the best reformed churches, and former engagements, they proceeded to impugn the constitution of all national or established churches; to call in question the propriety of all established order, or any uniformity in such matters; to condemn all religious tests; to plead an exemption from public standards, and lay aside the use of Confessions of faith as tests of orthodoxy, upon the ground of their being unwarrantable restraints on the rights of conscience, Christian liberty, and freedom of inquiry; and to condemn or renounce various doctrines formerly owned by the Presbyterian Dissenters, in common with the church of England and other Protestant churches. By these proceedings, they have entirely changed the state of their contendings, and virtually condemned their original separation, as not proceeding upon the proper grounds: they have strengthened the prejudices against a just and necessary secession from corrupt churches, and if they have not altogether renounced the important object of their reformation, have relinquished the favourable ground which they formerly occupied in endeavouring this, and lost the claims which were originally due to their remonstrances and petitions to this effect. A process similar to this has been going on in Scotland, and already has made considerable progress in the Secession, new-moulding the religious profession of that body, and changing their constitution, and the whole state of their testimony and contendings. They no longer hold that standard, which they bore in their hands when they came out from the established church, by the display of which they declared themselves a part of the church of Scotland, adhering to her reformed constitution. They have now a new constitution, and hold principles of their own, which were rejected by that church in her purest times. And the reformation which they propose, is one very different from that which the Associate Judicatories at the beginning approved, and desired to see revived.

But can these charges he substantiated? Is it indeed so, that the General Synod have changed the ground upon which they formerly stood, and adopted principles opposite to those which they formerly avouched and engaged to maintain? This is what we shall now proceed to demonstrate. The ministers who have opposed the late changes might well have been spared this drudgery. It might have been supposed sufficient that they were called upon to vindicate the former principles, which are now so generally supposed to be indefensible. It might have been expected that those who boast of the acquirement of new and superior light upon those subjects, would have come forward and honestly and openly confessed the change which they necessarily introduced, instead of endeavouring to shelter their innovations under the authority of deeds composed in times of such comparative darkness, and exposing themselves to the charge of first lighting a candle, and then hiding it under a bushel. Yet, for some time past, it has been a principle object to persuade people that there is either no change, or a very small one, that it is rather in form than in substance, in words than in principle. This management must plead an excuse for the particularities in the following statement, which have necessarily abridged the reasoning on different articles. It is not meant at present to mention all the things which are objectionable in the new deeds, or to enter at large into a refutation of any of them: this must be the subject of some future attempt. A statement of the principle ones is proposed; and notwithstanding the evasive, dubious, ambiguous, and not seldom contradictory language which is employed, we doubt not that we shall be able to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, the justice of the alleged charges.

[go to SECTION III.]


[1] Mr. Calderwood proposes the following question respecting the innovations introduced in his time, ‘If one or more preachers or professors in the said kirk, standing to the kirk’s former judgment, and able to defend the same by good reason, at least seeing no warrant to the contrary,—may dispense with the said oath, or follow the plurality of preachers and professors dispensing with the same? and what power may compel the alteration of judgment, or loose the said oath in any case aforesaid?’ This question he answers in the negative; and his reasoning upon it mutatis mutandis, is strikingly applicable to the present controversy. ‘Is any assembly (says be), never so lawful, free and formal, able to free us of this oath; let be a pretended assembly disturbed and divided in itself, and drawing down in one session those things which were builded up in many years, and by many famous and notable assemblies, consenting in one heart. But, as I have said, our oath was with consent of the assembly and kirk of Scotland. Seeing we are sworn severally, how can the same persons, assembled together in one body collective, dispense with this oath, seeing they have sworn to defend during their lives. To consent to any alteration is not to defend during their lives, but rather to betray the cause, and incur perjury.—They allege they have not violated their oath, because the substance of religion is kept; and only some indifferent points altered. But I answer, first, that an oath cannot be said to be kept, unless it be in all the parts and contents, and in the form and manner expressed.—Every point of the Confession of Faith is a note of profession, whereby we profess ourselves to be distinguished, either in substance or purity of religion, from others. Confessions of faith should not be changeable, as Hilarius complained of his times, annuas et menstruas fides de Deo decernimus (we make annual and monthly Confessions of faith.)’—Calderwood’s "Perth Assembly."—p. 25. 31. 

[2] The Committee of the General Synod, who drew up the Overture of a New Testimony, were, at their appointment, expressly restricted to the specific object of preparing a draught for extending the Testimony, or bringing it down to the present time. Yet in prosecution of their own views, not only without any authority from, but in opposition to an express vote of the Synod, they undertook a very different task, that of drawing up a New Testimony, and throwing into a different state and mould the whole profession. The court was so much changed in the course of a few years, that they received from the hands of the Committee, and at last gave their sanction to this Overture. The manner in which this New Testimony was undertaken, without any regular call, affords no favourable presumption as to its design and tendency. 

[3] About the year 1616, when the prevailing party in the church of Scotland meditated a change in her worship, they began with the proposal of a New Confession of Faith, which was drawn up and laid before the General Assembly of Aberdeen. The ministers who were attached to the original principles of that church, although they did not object to any part of doctrine contained in the New Confession, and although it was directed more immediately against certain errors then prevailing, particularly against Arminianism, yet opposed its introduction as ‘a needless and hurtful change,’ perceiving that the design was to detach them from their former Confession unto which they were bound by solemn oath, and gradually to prepare them for further innovations.—Yet the same persons afterwards, at the time of the Westminster Assembly, cordially agreed to the proposal of a new Confession, when there was a general disposition to maintain and hold fast the reformed principles and attainments of the church of Scotland, and when they bad a special call to this from the, important prospect of England and Ireland joining with them in one Confession, and other standards of religious uniformity.— Calderwood’s Course of Conformity, p. 58, History, p. 667 668.