Do Churches Really Discipline for Non-Attendance? A Brief History of Four Baptist Churches
Baptists of past generations were famous, not only for the frequency with which they excluded members, but for the variety of offenses that were considered worthy of exclusion. One of those reasons receiving renewed attention is non-attendance.
In this article, I will walk through some highlights from the Minutes of four historic Baptist churches in Washington DC: Second Baptist in Navy Yard, E Street in Chinatown, Metropolitan on Capitol Hill, and Berean Baptist in Northwest (three white, one black). In doing so, I will examine their practices with regard to discipline for non-attendance, before drawing some conclusions on the widespread practice of “dropping.”
ATTENDANCE AS COVENANT OBLIGATION
Baptists disciplined for non-attendance because they believed attendance was part of the covenant obligations of church membership. In fact, the promise to attend church gatherings sat atop nearly every church covenant. Clearly, church membership wasn’t like a newspaper subscription you could pay for and not use; it was a formal commitment to relationships of mutual obligation which, if neglected, resulted in public censure. Consider the covenant of E Street Baptist Church (1842):
It is an indispensable duty to assemble ourselves together on that day, and to worship God in a public manner, by offering up our prayers and thanksgivings, by attending to the preached word, and the ordinances of the Gospel, and by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
By emphasizing attendance (“assemble ourselves”), Baptist churches like E Street made it clear that they would discipline for non-attendance.
Earlier in 1802, members of First Baptist Church of Washington, had agreed “not to remove our residence or abode to any distant part without informing the Church and Consulting with our Brethren.” In 1810, Second Baptist made an even more explicit statement, agreeing in their original covenant,
Not to forsake the assembling ourselves together but constantly attend our appointed meetings, whether for worship or business so far as the Lord shall enable us from time to time, whether on the Lord’s Day or at other times, not neglecting them but when necessity compels us to do so and for good reasons to be given to the church at the next meeting.
That qualification—“but when necessity compels us . . . for good reasons”—provides for ever-present exceptions (members of the military, police, doctors, illness, necessary travel, etc.). But even stating the exception makes the point that such cases are, in fact, exceptional. Second’s covenant adds an additional, even more surprising requirement: members who miss any appointed meeting are expected to explain their absence “at the next meeting.”
So what did these Baptist churches do? Did they actually discipline for non-attendance?
DISCIPLINE FOR NON-ATTENDANCE AT SECOND BAPTIST
The most frequent cause for exclusion at Second Baptist Church was non-attendance. Partly because of the nature of government and military work (the church was located right next to the Navy Yard in SE DC), Second regularly struggled to locate members who left the city without notifying the church and requesting a letter of dismissal. In fact, this was such a serious problem that Second had a standing “Committee on Delinquent Members.”
On August 21, 1861, Second excluded 118 members in a single meeting for nonattendance. As the church explained in their annual letter to the Association for 1861, “We think it is due to say in reference to the number of erasures during the past year that our membership changes very much as the national administration changes in our city. Consequently upon the examination of our church books we find a great many have moved away and giving no account of themselves, their names have been erased.” On April 22, 1873, after revising their membership list, Second Baptist excluded 34 members for non-attendance.
DISCIPLINE FOR NON-ATTENDANCE AT E STREET BAPTIST
E Street followed similar practices. On May 28, 1845, a disciplinary committee appointed by E Street Baptist Church to investigate certain charges against eight members for “the neglect of the various meetings and of the communion table,” gave their report. Two of the brothers were obstinate, six were humble and repentant. The committee encouraged the church to exclude the former and show clemency toward the latter. One of the former, a Brother Robson, defended “himself against the Committee report,” occupying “the floor several minutes” and endeavoring to “justify his conduct by allegations against other brethren.” In doing so, he provided the perfect proof of his own obstinacy and unrepentance.The congregation proceeded exclude both Robson and Wroe “until it shall please the Lord to restore them to repentance.”
DISCIPLINE FOR NON-ATTENDANCE AT METROPOLITAN BAPTIST
By far the most frequent reason a name would come before the Board of Deacons and Pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church (today Capitol Hill Baptist Church) was non-attendance. They are so numerous that it would be exhausting to list each case, so just a few examples will be cited.
For instance, on December 21, 1887 the Board brought the name of “Bro. Paul Robinson” to the church for “remaining from church services and neglecting to support the gospel.” As they explain, “the board feels that it is due to the cause of the master and the interest of the church that when members continually absent themselves from the church services without good reason and neglect paying some small sum toward defraying the expenses of supporting the gospel that their cases are such as demand action.” According to another report from the Pastor and Deacons on July 17, 1889, the most common reasons for dropping a name from membership was stated as follows: “Mainly, lack of interest, non-attendance, and failure to contribute to the support of the gospel, with evidence inconsistent with Christian calling.”
That does not mean that they always proceeded straight to discipline. Exclusion was a careful, deliberate process that could take months or even years. For example, at the quarterly members meeting on January 21, 1880, the Clerk, Francis McLean, presented a motion, “That a Committee, composed of the Pastor and Deacons, be and is hereby requested to take into consideration such facts in the case of Sister Lucretia E. Douglas, as may explain the reasons, if any, of her non-attendance at the meetings of the church for over a year past, and to recommend at the next Quarterly Meeting what they shall deem to be the wisest and best course in the matter on the part of this church.” The motion was adopted by the church. At the next quarterly church business meeting on May 5, 1880, the pastor reported that “no definite action had been taken” but that progress had been made. On July 14, 1880, Bro. Murray reported that he and sister Mount had visited Sister Lucretia E. Douglas and engaged in “considerable conversation with her relative to [her] condition—spiritual and temporal,—that she stated she would endeavor to attend church more in future and pay what dues had accrued.” The assembled brethren then tactfully voted that her “dues be remitted.”
However, despite her promises to the contrary, Lucretia E. Douglas did not begin attending services again. As a result, her name was brought to the congregation on January 26, 1882 for discipline. As clerk, Francis McLean offered the following resolution: “Whereas Sister Lucretia E. Douglas has not attended any of the meetings of this church for over a year, and no report has been offered in explanation, therefore—Resolved, That her name be dropped and the Clerk instructed to communicate to her information of such action.” Brother John Kingdon made the motion that the word “excluded” be substituted for “dropped,” but after further deliberation, the vote was postponed to the next quarterly meeting. While the matter was again brought to the congregation on April 20, 1882, the report from clerk McLean, lacking the signatures of the deacons, was carried over until the next meeting. Finally, on October 18, 1882, the clerk brought the following motion to the congregation:
Whereas, Sister Lucretia E. Douglas has not attended any of the meetings of this church for two years past, and has offered no excuse nor explanation, and in view of the written report of the Deacons upon the case, therefore, Resolved, That she be and is hereby excluded from membership.
The motion was carried by the congregation.
DISCIPLINE FOR NON-ATTENDANCE AT BEREAN BAPTIST
Berean Baptist Church was an African-American congregation, formed on February 23, 1877. Adopting Hiscox’s Church Directory and the New Hampshire Confession of Faith for its rules of church order and discipline and statement of faith, the church practiced membership and discipline identically to the white Baptist churches of Washington. Candidates for membership did not appear before the church until they had been examined and approved by the deacons. When “Sister Kate Brown” stopped coming to church in 1879, she asked for her name to be dropped from the rolls.” But that was not a practice of the church, so a Deacon recommended that she be “excluded from the church.” The matter was held over until the next meeting where she was summoned to appear, and when she failed to do so,“On motion, she was excluded from the Church.”
WHAT ABOUT DROPPING OR ERASURE?
While exclusion for non-attendance was regularly practiced by Baptist churches, so was “dropping” or “erasure.” In their updated Rules of Church Order and Discipline from 1880, Metropolitan Baptist Church stated, “Absent members from whom no reports are received for one year may be dropped.” From examining the sources, however, it is not clear that these terms were entirely different from “excluding” or “striking” a name from membership.
Berean Baptist Church recognized non-attendance as a serious breach of membership duties worthy of church action. On December 2, 1886, the board of Pastor and Deacons announced to the church that in light of the continued absence of some members,
First, that hereafter when any member of this church shall have absented himself from her communion for four successive months without reason that the church may deem sufficient for such absence, his name may be dropped from the rolls of the church; Second, that when any such absenteeism occurs the deacon committee shall inform the absentee of the fact, and if he does not give satisfactory reasons for his absence at the next meeting of the church thereafter of which he shall also be notified, his name shall be dropped from the rolls of church membership.
At Berean, from 1886 onward, it is not clear whether “dropping” occurred automatically or required the action of the church.
In other cases, “dropping” was used synonymously with “excluding,” as in the abovementioned case of Lucretia Douglas. At the second quarterly meeting of Metropolitan Baptist Church on April 15, 1885, the case of Adoniram J. Merritt and his wife Mary A. Merritt was brought to the church. The Merritts had been “absent from us for a long time, and for over a year have failed to reply to the letters of Deacon Murray and the Clerk and contribute nothing toward the support of the church.” As a result, a motion was brought for their names to “be dropped from the Church Register, subject, however, to restoration if they show reasonable cause.” For them to be “subject to restoration,” implies that the “dropping” is an act of discipline. As Metropolitan’s Rules of 1880 explained, “When considered advisable, instead of exclusion, a member may be dropped, but in either case, a majority of the members present will be required.” Even if it’s possible that it was considered a “lesser penalty” than exclusion, it still required the action of the church, and resulted in a severing of the ties of membership, and therefore can certainly be counted as discipline.
THE PROLIFERATION OF “DROPPING,” THE DECLINE OF DISCIPLINE
In the twentieth century, however, the proliferation of “dropping” corresponds with a decline of discipline. For instance, I have not been able to find evidence of church discipline in the Minutes of Metropolitan Baptist Church, between 1934 and 1978, though the church frequently “Dropped” members. Sometimes this was even done by request of the member. Sometimes it was done to them, involuntarily, as when a member joined a Methodist Church, a Presbyterian Church, or even the Catholic Church as indicated in the examples below:
- Sept. 8, 1943: Dropped from the Roll: Misses Laura Evelyn and Margaret Beget having joined the Methodist Church.
- October 13, 1943: Dropped from the Roll: Mrs. Albert H. Uber having joined a Methodist church.
- November 3, 1943: Dropped from the Roll… Mrs. Leona M. Agnew, both having joined Church of Christ; Mrs. Umphrey W. Smith, having joined the Methodist Church.
- December 22, 1943: Dropped from the Roll: Mrs. C. W. Kildoo hawing joined the Christian Church.
- May 17, 1944: Dropped from the Roll: Mrs. John N. Condren, having joined the Catholic Church.
- February 2, 1944: Dropped from the Roll: Mr. and Mrs. L.S. Gowans (On request).
- March 8, 1944: 35 names were dropped by “request.”
Clearly this constituted an aberration from former practice, where the consent of the entire church was required for dismission, whether by letter, exclusion, or dropping. Why did discipline decline in the 20th century? Greg Wills has written an entire thesis on that subject. But at the end of the day, our practices should be guided by biblical fidelity and not by blind adherence to precedent.
THE RESTORATIVE END
The goal in all of this was never hard-heartedness or perfectionism, but always committed, covenant love. Every motion to discipline brought at E Street always ended with the hopeful words, “until it shall please God to restore him by repentance.” As Metropolitan wrote in its Rules of 1880, “Excluded members may be restored to membership on confession of their errors and giving evidence of repentance.”
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 The names of R.A. Crites and R.S. Cheseldine were “dropped from the list of membership” for having been absent for over a year and for having provided no communication or contributions for the church.
Another discipline case involving Daniel Robertson was brought to the congregation on December 21, 1887 but “laid over till meeting in January” in order for the “Board in meantime to make further efforts for information in regard to the matter.” On July 18, 1888 the following motion was adopted: “whereas brother Daniel Robertson has failed in his duty as a member of this church, and has ignored the admonitions of the deacons an members, and has also failed in contributing toward the support of the church, therefore, Resolved, that he is dropped from our membership.” The original motion had read “excluded,” but that was replaced by “dropped.”
A series of names were “dropped” at the members meeting on January 16, 1889. Many of these had joined the church during “revival services” and seemingly never made deep inroads into the church community. Miss Miriam Tyler’s name was dropped from the membership roll for “for years been remiss in her Christian duties, seemingly to take little interest, seldom attending and neglecting to contribute; And whereas her promises as to attendance made recently to the board of pastor in deacons (through one of its members delegated to attend to the matter) appear to be far from fulfillment; And whereas the forbearance exercised in our case has been rewarded only by the breaking of hopes and the waste of time.” Likewise Joseph L. Chilton’s name was dropped after “for over two years sadly neglect[ing] his Christian duties and privileges, apparently in almost every respect,” such that the “board, pastor and deacons, in view of his many broken promises, has lost hope of being able to accomplish any reformation.” Charles Edward Campbell, who had been baptized and joined the church just two years before, was also “dropped” for “neglect[ing] his Christian duties and privileges for over a year passed in the matters of attendance and contribution” such that “the board of pastor and deacons seems to be at a loss to know what is the best to recommend, owing to his youth and indolence.” At that same meeting, the following names were referred to the Board for consideration: Charles A. Boynton, William S. Burton, Mrs. Ella E. Crawford, Mrs. Harriett M. Kelser, Charles Kelser, Mrs. Carrie V. McCullum, Mrs. Mary J. Manning, William F. Marshall, Mrs. Willie Maria Peach, Mrs. Emily F. Roys, Miss Nettie St. John, Mrs. Mary Tichenor, Mrs. Kate A. Todd, Wilkins F. Wallace, Mrs. Marietta L. Wallace, William J. Webb, and Mrs. Annie E. White. Harriet M. Kelser was dropped for non-attendance on April 17, 1889, as was her husband Charles Kelser. The same was true for Mrs. Willie Maria Peach, Carrie V. [Knight] McCullum.
 For example, On December 3, 1885 Gertrude Lightfoot, after being recommended to the church by the deacon board and sharing her “experience of grace,” was “unanimously declared suitable for baptism and after which to become a member of the church.” Minutes of the Berean Baptist Church(Washington D.C.), 26.
 Metropolitan Baptist Church Minutes (1877-1906), 98. Incidentally, Mary A. Merritt rejoined Metropolitan from Calvary Baptist Church on July 28, 1887. No mention was made of her having previously been dropped from membership. Metropolitan Baptist Church Minutes (1877-1906), 125.