What One Baptist Association from 1707 Can Teach Churches in 2018
In evangelical life today, multi-site is in, and associational meetings are not. Small wonder. For example, most Baptist associations today appear to be on life support, limping along, deploying flannelgraph ministry techniques in an iPhone age. Meanwhile, some churches have multiple sites because they are, well, thriving—at least numerically, and some, perhaps, spiritually.
But it wasn’t always this way. At the outset, Baptist associations were strong and provided tangible help and encouragement for congregations and their elders. Their fruitful connectedness offers key insights for all Christians—Baptists not excluded—in 2018.
Perhaps no better historical illustration of such health exists than in America’s first Baptist association.
THE PHILADELPHIA ASSOCIATION
In 1707, five churches joined together near Philadelphia and formed the first association of Baptist churches in America—the Philadelphia Association. Among the founding pastors was Elias Keach—the wild and rebellious son of the famous British Baptist pastor-theologian Benjamin Keach, who in 1688 was converted in the pulpit under his own preaching.
The association connected these churches to one another organically without compromising congregational autonomy. By 1770, the Philadelphia Association’s membership counted 34 churches. By the late-nineteenth century, it had 81 member churches.
In its first 100 years, the Philadelphia Association encouraged, helped, and formed dozens of churches up and down the Eastern seaboard. It also helped form new associations in other regions such as New England and the Deep South—most notably the Charleston Association in South Carolina, founded in 1751 by Oliver Hart.
Each fall, member churches sent delegates to the association’s annual meeting, a gathering designed to help and encourage Baptist churches with similar doctrine and practice.
The Philadelphia Association remains a strong model for connectedness among Baptist churches today. Were a slice of its ethos and some of its practices recovered, Baptist churches would be strengthened and Baptist pastors would be encouraged. Churches in the Philadelphia Association sought to help one another in at least nine ways (thanks to my friend Tom Nettles for these categories):
1. To advise member churches.
Questions both practical and theological often arose within churches, thus queries or questions became a regular feature at associational meetings.
For example, at the 1723 meeting, a church at Brandywine sought help for Sundays when they had no one to preach on the Lord’s Day—how should they proceed? Associational leaders encouraged the church not to forsake meeting on the Lord’s Day, even when no preacher was available:
We conceive it expedient that the church do meet together as often as conveniency will admit; and when they have none to carry on the work of preaching, that they read a chapter, sing a psalm, and go to prayer and beg of God to increase their grace and comfort, and have due regard to order and decency in the exercise of their gifts in a mixed multitude until tried and approved of first by the church.
2. To warn churches about errant ministers
The association sought to warn member churches against particular ministers whose doctrine or life raised questions as to their fitness for the office of evangelist or pastor.
For example, at the 1789 meeting, the minutes show that a Mr. Worth, of Pittsgrove, “was far gone in the doctrine of universal salvation, we are will certified, by undoubted authority, that he is now fully in that belief. We, therefore, to show our abhorrence of that doctrine, and of his disingenuous conduct for a long time past, caution our churches to beware of him, and of Artist Seagraves, of the same place also, who has espoused the same doctrine.” In an age when the population was scattered and communication far more challenging than today, this was a particularly vital safeguard for member churches.
3. To withdraw fellowship from disorderly churches.
The driving principle of the association was that churches should have like faith and practice. In 1749, the association adopted an Essay on the Powers of Association, promising to withdraw from membership “a defective or disorderly church.” The essay set forth the relationship between a local church and the association and strongly affirmed the autonomy of the local body in the appointment of officers and in the celebration of the ordinances.
4. To maintain harmony between member churches.
Doctrinal or ethical disputes would occasionally arise between churches or their members such as in 1805 when minutes from the annual meeting reported, “There is some difference of sentiment with respect to a certain individual between the churches of Middletown and Hightstown.” The association provided a measure of peacemaking for all parties when ethical or doctrinal issues threatened to facture the unity between member churches.
5. To adopt a confession of faith and promote doctrinal unity.
In 1742, the Philadelphia Association adopted the Second London Confession of 1689 with two articles added: Singing of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs in worship, and the laying on of hands as part of baptism.
The association took the confession seriously and referred to it to answer most queries. The Second London Confession was already the accepted doctrinal standard for member churches, so the adoption of a confession by no means undermined autonomy. Though membership in the association was voluntary, “sound doctrine and regular practice” was fundamental to the nature of their connectedness.
In 1772, the annual meeting featured an exposition of each article, a sermon series that continued over the next 30 years. The association also produced a doctrinal circular letter, the first written by Abel Morgan on the doctrine of Scripture.
6. To address contemporary socio-political issues of immediate importance.
Delegates to the Philadelphia Association sometimes proved to be ahead of their times on ethical and social issues. At the 1789 meeting, attendees encouraged churches to work for the abolition of slavery, 74 years before the Emancipation Proclamation and 44 years before the culmination of Wilberforce’s work in England. From the minutes:
Agreeably to a recommendation in the letter fro the church at Baltimore, this association declares their high approbation (approval) of the several associations formed in the United States and Europe, for the gradual abolition of slavery of the Africans, and for guarding against their being detained or sent off as slaves, after having obtained their liberty; and do hereby recommend to the churches we represent to form similar societies, to become members thereof, and exert themselves to obtain this important object.
7. To encourage education for ministers.
The Philadelphia Association advocated stoutly for an educated clergy. In 1789, members discussed the “Importance of raising a fund for the education of pious young men for the ministry,” after which the association began a fund to support ministers who were “inclined toward learning.”
American’s first Baptist association was instrumental in founding Rhode Island College, a school that remains today as Brown College.
8. To provide fellowship between church leaders.
Churches and their leaders lived largely in isolation from one another. Today, however, with a population of more than 300 million combined with realities of social media and e-mail, instant communication between any two pastors offers far more opportunities for relationships. In the early eighteenth century, however, the opposite was true. The population of colonial America was roughly 300,000—and correspondence via letters happened slowly and inefficiently. In an effort to fill this gap, the annual associational meeting provided a crucial opportunity for church leaders to gather and fellowship.
9. To meet the mission needs of surrounding areas.
The association often sent preachers into areas where little to no gospel witness existed, which was, of course, most of the country. John Gano (1727–1804) was dispatched at least twice to South Carolina and North Carolina, places destitute of solid preaching. The association helped several struggling churches in North Carolina to eventually flourish and provided preachers for both freedmen and slaves.
STRONG START FOR BAPTISTS
By highlighting the Philadelphia Association, by no means do I intend to suggest it was perfect or exemplary in every way, or that the eighteenth century was a “golden age” among Baptists. Like every human organization, it manifested all the weaknesses intrinsic to its leaders and member churches. However, I do think there’s much we can learn from it about connectedness.
Here are a few lessons those dead Baptist might teach us.
- Churches and pastors need doctrinal and ethical accountability. Paul told Timothy, “Keep close watch on your life and your doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:16). Churches and their leaders need to keep a close eye on their life and doctrine. While this should happen formally within each congregation as elders live in accountability to one another and to church members, informal connections and friendships with leaders from other churches also help toward that end.
- Pastors need encouragement from fellow pastors. In my work with The Gospel Coalition, many pastors across the country have told me they feel isolated and have few other like-minded pastors with whom to fellowship. I’m grateful for pastor’s conferences such as T4G and the Shepherd’s Conference, among others, and networks such as Acts 29, Sojourn, and TGC’s regional groups. All of these provide connectedness for pastors laboring in far-flung places. For most of us, discouragement visits every Monday, so we need fellow pastors to lift our eyes toward Christ.
- Churches in a position to do so should consider helping congregations and pastors that are struggling financially. Is a sister church or faithful brother pastor suffering due to an economic shortfall? Instead of seeking a merger (often a positive development and a steeply declining church’s best alternative to closure), perhaps your church is in a position to help. Associating together might allow such needs to surface.
- Rural areas where there tends to be very little gospel presence need sound biblical churches. By God’s grace, churches are constantly being planted in large cities and population centers around the U.S. I’m deeply grateful for God’s work in the city. On the other hand, sparsely populated rural areas often have churches seemingly on every corner, but few preach sound doctrine. God loves his people in the country, so like-minded churches might consider sowing gospel seeds together by planting churches in those areas. Like the Philadelphia Association, let’s go to the cities and the suburbs, but let’s also consider taking the gospel back to remote areas—areas that may seem less attractive in our present church-planting environment.
- Multi-site churches ought to consider turning all locations into autonomous congregations, with the “mother church” and her daughter churches functioning in a manner modeled by the Philadelphia Association. Some multi-site churches are operating in a way that comes close to replicating this already. I would encourage multi-site churches to make this the goal—always. The Philadelphia Association provided a helpful support system, logistical assistance, pastoral encouragement, and confessional accountability without undermining any particular body’s autonomy. Each church had its own elder(s), constitution, bylaws, and confession of faith. Real, substantive assistance was at the ready through the association, but each church functioned as just that—a church.
I’m not suggesting that churches should connect and use the terminology of the “association,” nor am I necessarily suggesting that the recovery of such connections need to take on the formal structure of the Philadelphia Association. Perhaps some of their methods are helpful, perhaps not. But I would like modern Baptists and other churches to learn from the healthy ways these pastoral forefathers connected to each other around life and doctrine.
There are things the Philadelphia Association did out of bare necessity, things peculiar to eigthteenth century colonial America, and things that don’t fit our present cultural moment. However, the Philadelphia Association’s overall purposes sought to promote robust, biblical churches—a passion that should never go out of style.
Editors’ note: This article was adapted from a talk given at the Sojourn Network Leaders’ Summit in Louisville.