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PRESENT STATE OF THE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCHES
OF MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES.
Whilst the Congregational churches of England are at the present moment laudably anxious to increase their knowledge of other ecclesiastical bodies, and to extend their fellowship to all those who are the true disciples of their common Lord, it is obviously their duty to give their first attention to the state of sister churches at home and in foreign parts, and especially to those who have historical associations with the great struggle for evangelical truth and religious freedom in our fatherland.
Amongst these, the churches of our faith and order in the old American state of Massachusetts, deserve our fraternal sympathy, and we are about to use the information contained in “ The Minutes of the General Association of Massachusetts, at their Session at Westboro', June, 1842, with the Narrative of the State of Religion, and the Pastoral Letter,” for that purpose.
Before however we proceed to quote from these documents, it may be interesting to our readers to know something of the state in which these churches are planted. Massachusetts extends from the Atlantic Ocean on the east, to the state of New York on the west, and its length, computed by the northern boundary which separates it from Vermont and New Hampshire, is 130 miles ; by the southern boundary, which separates it from Connecticut and Rhode Island, 190 miles. Its area is given in the last census as 7820 square miles, and its population as 737,699 souls.
This province was first settled by a band of English emigrants in 1629, who, having left their native land for the sake of liberty of
conscience, organized the first Christian church at a place they called Salem, on the 6th day of August, 1629, when they signed the following covenant, which may be regarded as the expression not only of their sentiments, but of those churches which have now spread throughout the whole state.
“We covenant with our Lord, and one with another; and we do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth, and do explicitly, in the name and fear of God, profess and protest to walk as followeth through the power and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“We avouch the Lord to be our God, and ourselves to be his people, in the truth and simplicity of our spirits.
We give ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the word of his grace, for the teaching, ruling, and sanctifying of us in matters of worship and conversation, resolving to cleave unto him alone for life and glory, and to reject all contrary ways, canons, and constitutions of men, in his worship.
“We promise to walk with our brethren with all watchfulness and tenderness, avoiding jealousies and suspicions, backbitings, censurings, provokings, secret risings of spirit against them; but in all offences to follow the rule of our Lord Jesus, and to bear and forbear, give and forgive, as he hath taught us.
" In public or private, we will willingly do nothing to the offence of the church, but will be willing to take advice for ourselves and ours, as occasion shall be presented.
“We will not, in the congregation, be forward, either to show our own gifts and parts in speaking, or scrupling; or there discover the weakness or failings of our brethren ; but attend an orderly call thereunto, knowing how much the Lord may be dishonoured, and his Gospel and the profession of it slighted, by our distempers and weaknesses in public.
“We bind ourselves to study the advancement of the Gospel, in all truth and peace, both in regard of those that are within or without; no way slighting our sister churches, but using their counsel as need shall be ; not laying a stumblingblock before any, no, not the Indians, whose good we desire to promote; and so to converse, as we may avoid the very appearance of evil.
“We do hereby promise to carry ourselves in all lawful obedience to those that are over us in the church or commonwealth, knowing how well-pleasing it will be to the Lord, that they should have encouragement in their places, by our not griev. ing their spirits through our irregularities.
“We resolve to approve ourselves to the Lord in our particular callings, shunning idleness, as the bane of any state ; nor will we deal hardly or oppressingly with any, wherein we are the Lord's stewards.
“ Promising also, unto our best ability, to teach our children and servants the know. ledge of God, and of his will, that they may serve him also ; and all this, not by any strength of our own, but by the Lord Christ, whose blood we desire may sprinkle this our covenant made in his name." *
The Congregational churches in Massachusetts are now four hundred in number. They are united in twenty-four county or district Associ
* Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, book i. chap. 4.
ations, which are again joined in one "General Association,” which is in fact the Congregational Union of Massachusetts.
The ministers and churches, united in these Associations, are in no way afraid of compiling “Statistical Reports ;" for which purpose a return is given from each of the total number of members, male and female; the number of admissions for the current year, by profession or letters of dismission; the number removed by death, dismission, or excision ; the number of baptisms,-adults or infants ; and the number of Sabbath scholars, and Bible class pupils. The report of each church is sent to the Association with which it is joined ; and each Association sends a complete return to the General Association, by the hands of two representatives, who are accredited by certificates regularly prepared.
We have compiled the following table from the returns of the last year :
Name of Associations.
Number Number Number Sabbath Baptisms,
of School and
31 17 18 25 25 19 16 18 10
7 18 15
9 12 23 25 17 10 23 17 12 14 12 7
7 10 21 25 15
905 2955 2995 4388 3226 2205 3070 2665 1074 1194 929 443
61 .. 77
7 46 17 94 80 ..114 22 60 37 57 28 .. 67 65 ..114
8 55 10 48 25 71 14 56
27 32 62
From the Statistical Reports supplied by the District Associations, a Committee of the General Association compiles “a narrative of the state of religion,” which embodies most of the events of the year that call for observation. The following extracts are from that document for 1842:
"The past year has been one of peculiar interest to the Christian. The hand of God has been made manifest, and the great designs of his heart revealed, by dispensations of his providence and grace that are worthy of our most serious regard. While
we have felt his chastening hand in our commercial embarrassments, in the divisions which have distracted our national counsels, and in the awful judgments which have occasionally fallen upon individuals and communities, we have enjoyed an unusual share of the richest of all his gifts, the special effusious of the Holy Spirit. Never since the days of Edwards have revivals been more numerous and powerful in this commonwealth than in the past year, and at no period of our history have they progressed with greater stillness and solemnity, or been more signally marked as the effects of the Spirit of God. The ordinary means of grace, used in the ordinary way, have in thousands of instances been made the wisdom of God and the power of God to the salvation of souls. The churches of Christ connected with this body, have peculiar reasons for gratitude to heaven, for the displays of Divine mercy which they have witnessed the past year. Though in many instances the District Associations complain of the prevalence of a worldly spirit, the profanation of the Sabbath, and its kindred vices, yet not one has failed to report a revival in a number of the churches within its limits.". “A new impulse has been given to the cause of temperance the past year.
God has smiled upon those who have long laboured in this cause, by making their efforts preparatory to an extraordinary movement among the inebriates themselves. New labourers have been brought into the fields, whose participation and experience in the evils of intemperance have prepared them to excite an interest and exert an influence upon their companions, which no other men could do. An admirable instance this of the well-known purpose of God to bring to the aid of his faithful servants the efficient exertions of those who become anxious to promote the cause which they once attempted to destroy.
“ This Association is gratified to learn that there is no abatement in the interest felt in Sabbath schools and Bible classes, and that these have in so many instances been the means of hopeful conversions. It is no less pleasing to know that amidst all the pecuniary embarrassments of the times, the religious charities of the churches are not at all restrained, but rather enlarged. In several instances, it is known that the amount given for benevolent objects the past year, is nearly double that given for the same objects any preceding year.
“ It is in our estimation a token for good that there is among the ministers and churches in our connexion an increasing sense of the importance of doctrinal instruction, and that the revivals reported appear in so great a degree to be the result of the operation of truth upon the conscience and the heart, without the extraneous influence of other exciting causes. We are glad to see a growing interest in the positive insti. tutions of religion, and especially in the important rite of infant baptism. A determination to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints on these subjects is worthy of all praise, and affords pleasing evidence of a disposition in the community to return to the good old paths of our pilgrim fathers.
“ It gives us great pleasure to learn that essentially the same grace which God has given us has been conferred on those ecclesiastical bodies with which we are connected.”
From these extracts it would appear that the brethren who penned them, regarded the state of the churches of Massachusetts as peculiarly prosperous during the year 1841; and without an examination of the Statistical Reports, it might be supposed that extraordinary additions had been made to their numbers; for the narrative says, Never since the days of Edwards have revivals been more numerous and pow. erful in this commonwealth, than in the past year.” We have cast up the column of admissions, hoping to find “the thousands of instances” referred to, but our readers may judge of our disappointment, when we ascertained that the gross number for the year is 1784 persons, which divided by 400, the number of the churches, gives something less than four and a half addition, in the year, to each church ! But this is not the worst part of it ; for telling up the columns of removals, by deaths, dismissions, or excision, we discover that these churches lost in 1841, 2112 members, or something more than five members for each church ; so that at the end of a year of “precious revivals” they have lost 328 members more than they have gained.
On this point it must be stated, however, that the great proportion of the 2112 removals was by dismission to other bodies. The churches of New England have been the fountains from which living water has been conveyed to the distant wildernesses of the Union ; and much of the piety, intelligence, and enterprise, that distinguish the infant members of the federal republic, has been drawn from the springs that were first opened by the pilgrim fathers ; but still it is evident from these numbers, that if succeeding years should not be more prosperous, the time will come when their supplies will be exhausted, which God forbid! Anxious not to misrepresent the state of things, we have carefully observed the instances that are specified, and find that the number of additions ranges from 40 to 70; while “in Westfield, as many as 100 have been hopefully brought out of darkness into marvellous light ;” and in one instance, “the North Suffolk Association reports, that 150 have been hopefully converted.” The force of these numbers must be relative to the size of the congregations, and the populations around them ; but the larger Congregational churches of London, and the other great towns of England, would not speak of additions of 40 or 50 members a year as evidence of “large and special outpourings of the Spirit.”
And, if we may venture to express the opinion, it would be far better not to speak of circumstances, which only indicate that the churches are Dot forsaken of their Lord, as if a pentecostal effusion of Divine influence were enjoyed. We were once in company with Mr. Divie Bethune, of NewYork, the estimable son-in-law of that mother in Israel, Mrs. Graham, who having delighted a large circle of friends with an account of some remarkable outpourings of the Holy Spirit, in America, the lady of the house devoutly exclaimed, “O Mr. Bethune, how I long for some of those blessed showers, to refresh our own churches ;” to which with equal courtesy and taste, and we may add truth too, he replied, "Madam, you forget that they have always the dew.” This important distinction is, we fear, overlooked by some of our American brethren. We commend it with fraternal regard to their consideration.
Another point in these extracts, to which we are disposed to advert, is that of baptism. The number of baptisms for the year is reported as