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SECTION V. The Departures from the Reformation Attainments, against which the Dissenters reckon it their duty to testify.


SECTION V. The Departures from the Reformation Attainments, against which the Dissenters reckon it their duty to testify.

James Dodson

WHILE the Ministers, and Professors of the Christian religion, in general, are required to consider themselves as “set for the defence of the Gospel;” it seems likewise to be an important part of their duty, “not to suffer sin upon their brother;—to withstand those who are to be blamed;” and to testify against the generation amongst whom they live, in so far as the deeds thereof are evil.

Our Lord himself, not only bore witness unto the truth; but, at the same time, solemnly remonstrated against the Scribes and Pharisees, for introducing error, and other corruptions into the Church of God. We also find him, in his Epistles to the seven Churches of Asia, particularly commending those who withstood the introduction of error and corruption; while he severely reprehends such as tamely submitted to these evils, and delivered not their own souls, by faithfully warning against them.

In imitation of their Lord and Master, we find the Apostles ever careful to combat the false doctrines, corruptions in worship, and gross immoralities, which appeared in their times. It may, indeed, be difficult to manage this part of an honest testimony, with becoming temper and spirit; but the most necessary and important duties are often attended with much difficulty, in the right performance of them.

Tracing the defections from former attainments, according to the order of time in which they happened; we must give a distinguishing place to the anarchy and confusion, which were introduced at the beginning of Cromwell’s usurpation; by means of which the Reformation constitutions, both civil and ecclesiastic, were completely unhinged. The public resolutions, for receiving into places of power and trust, through the nation, even such as were abundantly well known to be unfriendly to the covenanted uniformity and fundamental laws of the kingdom, belong also to this period. These things happened in the years 1650-51: And they loudly proclaimed our departure from the living God: for we may always expect, “that the wicked will walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.” Both Church and State revolted more and more, till the restoration of Charles II. in 1660.

From the Restoration until the Revolution, which happened in the year 1688, we find a long and dismal train of defections which particularly claim our attention; and deserve to be remonstrated against, by all who plead the Reformation cause. Amongst others, the following may be specified:—

The rash and unqualified restoration of Charles, without any security, either sought or given, for the preservation of the true religion, or the observation of the coronation oath, which he had taken at Scoon, many years before; the superstitious observance of a public anniversary, on account of that unhallowed restoration; the Heaven-daring act recissory, in the year 1661, with other sinful acts of the same backsliding Parliament; openly and avowedly, overturning at once, the preceding glorious work of Reformation, and branding it with the odious appellations of rebellion and sedition; the re-admission of Prelacy, with its numerous train of concomitant evils, after having been abjured, by all ranks of men through the kingdom, in the most solemn manner; the tyrannical restraining of ministerial freedom; the restoring of patronages; the frequent imposition of sinful, and, in some instances, self-contradictory oaths; the contemptuous rejecting, burning and burying of the public National Covenants, alongst with other publications of the same spirit and tendency; the barbarous and most inhuman persecution of the faithful witnesses for the Redeemer’s cause, during the long period of twenty-eight years; together with the many unwarrantable, cunningly devised and deeply ensnaring tolerations, and indulgences, which characterised this period, especially the latter end of it.

While Dissenters testify against toleration, they are not to be understood as meaning a merely passive toleration, implying nothing more than simply permitting men to exist unmolested, and to hold their different opinions, without using external violence to make them change these, or to exterminate them from the face of the earth, if they do not. Forbearance of this kind, after every scriptural and rational mean has been used without effect, cannot be condemned. But what they have in view, is that authoritative toleration, in which the rulers of a kingdom, assuming the character of judges in these matters, by their proclamations, or other public deeds, declare what different opinions, or systems, they will allow to be taught and propagated, and to what modes of worship they will give countenance and protection; while they exclude others from that supposed privilege.

This is unquestionably to usurp the prerogative of JEHOVAH: for it should ever be remembered, that no man whatsoever has any right, even for himself, either to hold or propagate opinions which are at variance with the revealed will of God. Nor have church-members themselves, whether in official or in private capacity, a right either to profess or practise any other religion than what JEHOVAH, the great Lord of the conscience, prescribes for them. Hence says the Church’s Lawgiver, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” How, then, can any man, or class of men, give to others a right, which they have not themselves? The true religion, sanctioned by Divine authority, speaks for itself, and needs no toleration from men: false religion ought to be rejected as reprobate silver, and is incapable of toleration. To speak with holy reverence, God himself cannot allow it, inasmuch as it is contrary to his glorious perfections; for mortal men, then, to give it their countenance, must certainly be very daring presumption. But, to carry forward our enumeration,

We may further observe, that between the Revolution, in 1688, to the present time, there will also be found many striking evidences of our mournful backsliding; against which it becomes us to testify, and over which we ought deeply to lament. The remarkable goodness of Divine providence, at the Revolution [in 1688], in graciously delivering the nation from popish tyranny and bloodshed, was sadly misimproved, by the formation of exceedingly defective constitutions, both civil and ecclesiastic, and by the corresponding administrations, ever since. Were we to examine the materials of which the great fabric of the united constitution was at that time composed, we should, no doubt, find many excellent things, in both the civil and ecclesiastic departments: but, alas, these were blended with much heterogeneous matter, which tarnished the whole, and loudly proclaimed the retrograde motion of the nation’s representatives.

The word of God, which ought to have regulated their conduct, in organizing the great civil society of the State, and in fixing the conditions of advancement to places of power and trust within it, was entirely out of the question. The valuable Reformation acts of the Scottish Parliaments, between 1638 and 1649, which had been formerly considered as so many precious bulwarks for guarding the places of power, were totally overlooked, and formed no part of the British code, at the Revolution, nor have they ever formed any part of it since.

Prelacy, which had been openly abjured by all ranks of men in Scotland, England, and Ireland, was now made the foundation, and chief corner-stone, of the great National building; inasmuch as the open profession and practice of it, in his own person and family; the legal support and defence of it, as the established religion of England and Ireland; together with the preserving unto the diocesan bishops, and churches committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as, by law, either did, or should, appertain unto them,—were made the essential, the positively fixed condition, without swearing and subscribing to which, the supreme magistrate could not be permitted to wear the British crown. The bishops, blasphemously styled LORDS SPIRITUAL, were declared to be constituent members in one of the houses of parliament.

A religious supremacy, totally unwarranted, yea positively condemned in the word of God, was still vested in the crown. Hence, by the law of England, the king was constituted—"The head and supreme governor of the National Church; the dernier [last] resort in all ecclesiastical causes,—an appeal lying ultimately to him in chancery [court] from the sentence of every ecclesiastical judge. In virtue of this authority, it was declared to be his right, to convene, prorogue, restrain, regulate, and dissolve, all ecclesiastical synods and convocations. Nor can it be refused, that this supremacy, though not to the same degree, yet, in the true spirit of it, is extended to the Church of Scotland also. From the Revolution to the present time, the king assumes it as his right, to call, adjourn, or dissolve the General Assemblies of the Church, according to his pleasure; and there have not been wanting instances of doing it in a very arbitrary and authoritative-like manner. He reckons it his prerogative, if need should at any time so require, to circumscribe the objects of their attention, forbidding them to meddle with such things as he may judge it improper for them to discuss. He prescribes for the ministers of the Gospel those political oaths, without the swearing of which they shall not be permitted to exercise their office. He peremptorily commands these ministers, as; his servants, to read, on the Lord’s day, after public worship, his proclamations, or other state-papers, which may be subservient to the purposes of government. He authoritatively imposes public fasts upon the Church; and commands them to be observed, under the sanction of such civil pains as he, and his privy council, may think proper to inflict. By that ensnaring instrument, THE SACRAMENTAL TEST, he requires, even of those who are in the communion of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, that, in order to qualify them for a post under government, they shall take the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, after the superstitious manner of the Church of England. A most impious prostitution of that sacred ordinance, and a most glaring imposition upon the consciences of men; providing those, who submit to it, have any conscience in these matters! Add to these, that the right of presenting to a vacant charge, through a great many parishes in Scotland, is considered as vested in the crown.

As an additional ratification of all these things, an incorporating union of Scotland and England, was mutually formed in the year 1707; whereby the former state of matters, in the respective churches, was unalterably confirmed. And consequently, an attempt made to seal forever the destruction of that covenanted uniformity in religion, which characterised the Reformation period. This union was, in the year 1712, followed by a nearly boundless and authoritative toleration; which must also be considered as having the same tendency.

Nor must we forget, in this enumeration, the National countenance given to abjured Popery, by the legal support and defence of it, in the vast province of Canada, in North America; the authoritative toleration of it in England and Ireland, and now also in Scotland; together with the goodwill manifested to protect and encourage it, in the island of Corsica, during the short time that island was attached to the British crown.

The repeated and obstinate refusals to abolish the unhallowed slave trade, together with the wantonly entering into, and prolonging many excessively burdensome and destructive wars; though they may not so directly appear as a contrast to the state of things in the Reformation period; are, notwithstanding, mournful proofs of our National guilt, and departure from the living God; and also deserve to be testified against.

In the Established Church of Scotland, both at, and since the Revolution, there will likewise be found many things, calling for mourning, lamentation and woe. In her first formation, she cannot certainly be considered as a purely scriptural and Gospel Church: but rather as a politico-ecclesiastic fabric, inasmuch as the civil State, taking the lead, prescribed, and fixed for her, the doctrine, the government, and discipline, unto which she must adhere; and, having done this, ordered such constituent members as they thought proper, to sit down in a general assembly, to consult, and to rise again, according to their pleasure. In choosing the model on which she was to form, she, or rather the State for her, made a retrograde motion of nearly a hundred years; knowingly and designedly, overlooking the precious Reformation period, between 1638 and 49: and, consequently, disregarding also her Lord’s express command, “Remember, how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent.” She has uniformly and tamely submitted to the various encroachments of the civil power, upon her intrinsic rights and privileges; without expressly and openly asserting either the Divine and exclusive title of Presbytery, as the alone mode of Church government appointed by Christ, or his sole Headship over his Church. She has repeatedly and obstinately refused to revive the remembrance of those public and solemn vows, which the nation is under to the Most High God; and accordingly, she has always turned a deaf ear to the many just and weighty grievances which, from time to time, have been tabled before her judicatories, with regard to such culpable omissions. Instead of throwing off the galling yoke of patronage; she has wreathed it more and more closely about her own neck. She has often passed too slightly, and especially in her higher courts, given too much countenance to Socinian, and Arminian errors. Receiving of pecuniary compensations, in place of openly inflicting the censures of the Lord’s house, in the case of fornication; private administrations of baptism; and, in a great many instances at least, exceedingly lax admissions to the holy ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, are also just ground of regret, in the Established Church.

We are very sorry that there should be occasion to mention, amongst our mournful departures from Reformation attainments, those public testimonies, or statements of religious principles, which treat Divine truths with evident partiality, leaving a very considerable and important part behind. When the ministers of religion are called to teach those amongst whom they labour, to observe all things whatsoever Christ hath commanded; when we are positively enjoined, whereunto we have already attained, to walk by the same rule; and when churches and nations are required to remember how they have received and heard; there is never the slightest information given, that we are at liberty to pick and choose, amongst these things.

But, while we lament the partiality of the testimonies, or statements, which we have in view; let us not be misunderstood, as though we undervalued, or rejected, what is praiseworthy in them. If any man, or class of men, be enabled to be truthful, even in a few things, we desire to rejoice, yea, and herein do rejoice; though we should be under the disagreeable necessity of testifying against them, in some other things, wherein they are to be blamed. The Great Pattern of all perfection himself, who came to bear witness to the truth, commended whatever was good in the Asiatic Churches, to which his Epistles are addressed; though, at the same time, he had somewhat against them. His faithful witnesses, while acting ministerially in his name, and by his authority, seem warranted to follow such a noble example.

To separate from the prevailing party, in a corrupt church; to enter a solemn protest against patronage, the disseminating of erroneous doctrine, and several abuses in discipline and government; and strongly to assert and vindicate the doctrines of free grace, endeavouring at the same time to have them preached and propagated through the land, as our Seceding brethren have done, is all very well. But why not search the evils to the bottom; and exhibit a full and impartial testimony, against all the radical defects of both the civil and ecclesiastic departments in the Revolution settlement? Why attempt to reconcile things which, from their very nature, appear to be altogether irreconcileable; viz. on the one hand, to profess adherence to all the Reformation attainments, between 1638 and 49, when prelacy was solemnly abjured by all ranks of men in the kingdom, and the fundamental laws of the nation required, that the prince and the people should be of the same Covenanted and Presbyterian religion; and on the other hand, to approve and extol a government, the very first and fundamental laws of which require, upon solemn oath, the profession and maintenance of prelacy, as the indispensable condition, upon which the sceptre is to be swayed, in either civil or religious things? Many acts of mal-administration, in the best of human governments, should be overlooked, before we reject them altogether; but when such things are interwoven into the very essence of the constitution, it must make a material difference. Why pretend to justify, and strongly to approve, the conduct of our renowned martyrs, in the time of the late persecution; who, though a very small and despised minority in the nation, totally rejected the authority of the powers who then were, in both civil and religious things; and at the same time, condemn those who cannot in judgment and conscience, subscribe to the British government, on account of its fundamental laws, independent of mal-administrations, necessarily involving the nation in mournful apostacy from their former attainments? Why profess, as is done by one of the parties, to renew the original covenants, which unquestionably embraced all the Reformation attainments, in the State as well as in the Church; and yet exclude from the Bond, avowedly formed for that purpose, the civil part of our Reformation?

We are as much against blending civil and religious things together, or, in other words, putting them out of their proper place, as our brethren possibly can be. It is well known that a very material part of our testimony is stated in direct opposition to this, and is intended to draw the line of distinction, between the Church and the State. But as the same Bible, and the same moral law, require the conscientious performance of our duty to God, and of our duty to man; we are unable to see the inconsistency of expressing our resolution, even in the same covenant, seriously to attend unto the duties, comprehended in both tables of the law, though each in their own place; and also of asserting the character of those superiors, whom we reckon ourselves bound to obey.

Why refuse, as is done by the other party of our Seceding brethren, to make the trumpet give a distinct sound, with respect to the binding obligation of the National Covenant of Scotland, and of the Solemn League and Covenant of the three kingdoms? Does the Word of God forbid, or would it be inconsistent with Reformation principles, plainly to speak it out; that these covenants, even strictly and formally considered, as the righteous and divinely warranted deeds of our pious ancestors, are still binding on their latest posterity? Is not the party sworn unto, the ever-living and true God, whose name and memorial continue the same through all generations? And are not the parties, who solemnly lifted up their hands to him, while collectively and formally considered, still in existence? If the same covenant bound the successive generations of ancient Israel; we cannot see, how a scriptural covenant should not, by parity of reason, bind, even yet, from generation to generation.

To dissent from those with whom they formerly associated, on account of their violently settling ministers over reclaiming congregations; and to refuse their countenance to such as preach, or otherwise disseminate, legal doctrines, which are the chief characteristics of the Relief party, is so far commendable. But honesty, in such matters, certainly required, that something more should have been done. A clear line of distinction ought to be drawn, between the church that is left, and the church which professes to take separate ground; instead of their respective members being frequently mingled together, in one of the closest and most solemn acts of church-communion upon earth, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is surely requisite, for vindication of the truth, that other defections in the Established Church, as well as patronage and legal doctrine, should be testified against. Instead of denying the duty of explicit covenanting, in Gospel times, as a great number, at least, of the Relief body [i.e., the Presbytery of Relief] do; it would be much liker the character of Christ’s witnesses, openly to assert and defend that duty, both as fully warranted by the word of God, and as a precious part of our Reformation attainments. And in place of condemning, as these brethren also do, even sound and scriptural creeds and confessions, intended as subordinate tests of orthodoxy, and as happy means of bringing christians to “think the same things, and to speak the same things;” it would certainly be more becoming those who mean, as well as others, to be set for the defence of the Gospel, candidly to adopt such creeds, and to join with others in the vindication of them. They cannot but know, that those who have received the crown of martyrdom, for keeping the word of Christ’s patience, in the hour of temptation, are represented as slain, not simply for the word of God, but also for their testimony, which they held concerning it. Nor will it be easy to deny, that they themselves, and indeed all societies without exception, are obliged, oftentimes, to act on the very same general principles, upon which creeds and confessions can easily be defended; though they may reject the name.

To allow the christian people, who may reckon themselves aggrieved by patronage, to erect a separate place of worship, in the parish, and to choose their own ministers, who may preach unto them the evangelical doctrines of the Gospel, as is done in the Chapels of Ease, through the country, is no doubt suffering the people to exercise part of the liberty wherewith Christ has made his Church free. But to circumscribe the power of these ministers, by denying them, either in whole or in part, the keys of discipline and government, or obliging them to hold these at the precarious will of the parish session, is certainly a novelty in the Church of Christ:—a scheme which has not the shadow of foundation in the revealed will of God.

To manifest a warm zeal, providing it were according to knowledge, for propagating the doctrines of Christianity, in the different parts of the kingdom, as the Union churches, or Tabernacle people, with other Independents, profess to do, cannot be blamed, abstractly considered. But it is certainly matter of deep regret, that this should be done at the expense of overturning, in part at least, the comely order of Christ’s house; by hurrying forward to the work of the ministry, great numbers of raw and untutored persons, who have not actually used, nor indeed been allowed time to use, the necessary means of preparation, for such an important and arduous undertaking. This procedure is evidently calculated to bring the office of the holy ministry into disrepute; as has frequently been acknowledged, even by those who in other respects, befriended the scheme. It is certainly at variance with both the letter and true spirit of the Divine injunction, “Lay hands suddenly on no man.”

We mean not to assert, that what is ordinarily called a liberal, or university education, is, in all possible cases, or in all extraordinary circumstances, indispensably necessary to the work of the ministry; nor do we pretend exactly to draw the line, and to say what degree of it may be requisite. Meanwhile, we apprehend, that it may safely be admitted, as a general rule, that in all ordinary cases, and when time can by any means be afforded, instead of abridging the attention which has been given by Presbyterian churches to such means of preparation; we ought rather, were it practicable, to double our diligence.

It is well known, that the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek. How we can expect, without a pretty extensive and accurate knowledge of these languages, to explain unto the people the admirable beauty and force of the nervous original; correct mis-translations; or combat the adversaries of Divine truth, on their own ground, and with their own weapons, while attempting to shelter themselves under particular texts of scripture; it is certainly very difficult to see.

If it has pleased God, in the revelations of his will, to comprehend many references to the ancient customs and usages of different nations; to lead our views to geographical descriptions of countries, which have been the scenes of his wonderful works; and to give us large portions of natural and moral philosophy, with precious stores of theological truths; we should reckon it a fair conclusion, that a very considerable proportion of time and attention, ought to be bestowed on these things, in order that we may ourselves understand what we read, and may be the better fitted, through the Divine blessing on the use of means, to explain and illustrate it unto others, for their instruction and comfort.

As to the superior claim of the Presbyterian, above the Independent, form of Church government; it is surely very obvious, that through the whole of Divine revelation, a line of distinction, clear as noon-day, is uniformly drawn between teachers and taught, the pastors or shepherds of the flock, who are to feed and rule them, and the flock itself put under their care. A statement which, though it stood alone, we humbly apprehend, would amount to a demonstration, that the power, whether of ruling, discipling, or feeding the flock of Christ, is not, indiscriminately, committed to the community of the faithful at large; but to certain persons, solemnly and formally set apart, for that very purpose, according to the obvious rules of the Word.

Nor is it less plain, that the Sacred Scriptures require all office-bearers in the Church, whether only ruling with diligence, or, besides that, also labouring in word and doctrine, to be possessed of such peculiar gifts and qualifications, as cannot be reasonably expected amongst the multitude in general; even granting them to be the multitude of those who believe, and who, in other respects, may be of one heart and one soul. Besides, can it be denied, that when Christ gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and granted a power ministerially to bind and loose on earth, what should be bound and loosed in heaven, when the procedure was in his name and agreeable to his will; he made not this grant to all church-members indiscriminately, but to chosen disciples or apostles, whom he clothed with a commission, to go and preach the Gospel to every creature, and to teach the nations, baptizing them?

It also claims our notice, that, according to the scriptural account of the holy ministry, as comprehending both ruling and feeding, it is such a laborious and interesting service, as requires those who are called unto it, to give themselves wholly to that very thing; whether teaching, they must wait on their teaching; or ministry, they must wait on their ministry.

Add to these, that in the primitive apostolical churches they were not the people, or community of church-members at large, who ordained those decrees, which seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them, and which were given for regulating the conduct of christian congregations; but they were the APOSTLES AND ELDERS, who had come together for that purpose: in open court to be sure, and cheerfully allowing the multitude to attend: which is also the case with the Presbyterians of latter times.

It will no doubt be objected, “That even with Presbyterians, some of the people, ordinarily called lay-elders, are allowed the honour of ruling in the church.” But this militates nothing against the general argument. These ruling elders stand not alone, nor compose the body of those who take the management of church affairs. They are only added, for the better conducting the discipline and government of the church, as helpers or assistants unto those who labour in word and doctrine. They are, by the congregation’s choice, selected and separated from their brethren. They are always considered as distinguished from the multitude at large, by such gifts and qualifications, as are requisite for the part which they have to act. And they are solemnly ordained, and set apart for their office. They are, indeed, usually employed, like other men, in some one or other of the common avocations of human life. But even with respect to that, it is an object of attention, that they shall, if possible, be less embarrassed with worldly concerns, than what many others of the congregation must necessarily be. So that we still proceed on the broad principle, “That all are not prophets, all are not pastors,” nor are all even ruling-elders, for managing the discipline and government of the Christian Church.