[In reply to some papers written by the Rev. S. Newton, of Norwich.]
The piece by “An Old Congregationalist” seems to invite an answer from both Baptists and Pædobaptists. If the following remarks be acceptable on behalf of the former, they are at your service.
Whether or not I can convince your respectable correspondent, (with whom, if I am not mistaken, I have some acquaintance,) I hope he will allow what I advance to be “friendly,” and as free from “the air of angry controversy” as he can desire.
That the plea for infant communion is equally valid with that of infant baptism you will not expect me to dispute. If I could be convinced of the one, I see no reason why I should scruple the other. If one of your Pædobaptist correspondents should think proper to answer in behalf of his brethren, it will belong to him to point out the grounds for admitting the former while he rejects the latter. My share of the answer is merely to notice the arguments for infant communion taken from the Scriptures, or from other acknowledged duties.
We are accused at the outset of having, “without a Divine precept, separated the children of believers from the church of God.” To this I answer—1. Allowing them to have been in the church under the Old Testament, it does not follow that they should be members of churches under the New Testament. “A Congregationalist” must admit of a very material difference in the constitution of the church under these different dispensations; so material as that the laws of admission to the one are no rule by which to judge of the other. If he will not, however, he must consider as members of the church, not only his own children, but all that are born in his house, or bought with his money. Or if he refuse this consequence, he brings upon himself his own charge, of separating the poor servants from the church of God, without a Divine precept. Should he in this case allege that there is no precept or example in the New Testament for admitting them, he would furnish an answer which is no less applicable to the other.—2. But before the charge of separating the children of believers from the church of God had been preferred, it should have been proved that they, as such, were, ever in it. Unless the whole Israelitish nation were believers, it could not be as the children of believers that their descendants were admitted to Divine ordinances. If “the habits and practices of the Jews” prove any thing, they will prove too much, at least for a “Congregationalist.” They will not only require the admission of servants born in the house, or bought with money, but the very constitution of the church must be national. Their children and servants must not only be admitted in infancy, but continue in full communion when adults, though there should be no proof of their being any other than graceless characters.
But we agree, it is said, “to take our children to family and public worship; to teach them to read the Bible with seriousness and attention, instruct them in catechisms and in private prayer; for all which they have no more understanding than for the Lord’s supper.” It is not however for want of understanding that we object to it, but the want of Scripture precept or example. If God had required it, or the first churches practised it, we should think ourselves as much obliged to bring our children to the Lord’s supper as the Israelites were to bring theirs to the passover. It appears to me that great mistakes have arisen from confounding moral obligations with positive institutes. The former are binding on all mankind, and therefore require to be inculcated on every one within the reach of our influence; the latter are limited to a part of mankind, usually described in the institutions themselves. The one being founded in our relation to God and one another, and approving themselves to the conscience, require neither precept nor precedent, but merely a general principle which shall comprehend them; the other, having their origin merely in the sovereign will of God, require a punctilious adherence to what is revealed concerning them. While we engage in what is purely moral, and what is therefore right for every one to engage in, we incur no relative guilt, whatever be the motives or even the manifest characters of those who unite with us, any more than in contributing with an irreligious man to the relief of the poor; but in what is positive, if the parties with whom we unite be virtually excluded by the institution, we are accessory to their doing what, in the present state of mind, they have no right to do. For want of attending to this plain distinction, some have gone so far as to refuse to engage in public prayer in a promiscuous assembly, and even to join in family worship, if any were present whom they accounted unbelievers. Proceeding on the same principle, the “Congregationalist” appears to me to err in the opposite extreme; arguing from our joining in what is right for all men that we ought to join in what the Scriptures limit to certain characters.
The appeal is next made to the New Testament. Here it becomes us to be all attention. “Were not the first churches composed of households?” That there were some households in them is clear; and we have some in many of our churches. But why did not the “Congregationalist” prove that some of them at least were infants? If he could have done this, all his other arguments might have been spared. It might indeed be supposed that households will ordinarily consist of some of this description; and if we were not given to understand the contrary in these instances, the presumption might appear in favour of this supposition. But it so happens that each of these households appears from the Scripture accounts to have been composed of believers, Acts 16:34–40; 1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15.
“Were not parents told, if they believed, they and their house should be saved?” The head of one family was thus addressed: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” But surely the meaning of this is, that if he and his house believed, they should all be saved. If Paul and Silas meant to say his house should be saved, though he only believed, why is it added in the next verse, “And they spoke unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house?” The Pharisees seemed desirous of establishing their claim on the ground of having Abraham to their father; but John the Baptist did not allow of it, but intimated that the axe was now laid to the root of the tree, and that every tree which brought not forth good fruit should be hewn down and cast into the fire. Who would have thought that “An Old Congregationalist” could have pleaded, not merely for the admission of children to Christian ordinances in virtue of the faith of their parents, but for their being actually saved? I have heard of certain professors of religion in the fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire who hold this opinion with great earnestness, and who on the ground of their forefathers’ faith rest assured of salvation, whatever be their own characters; but I should not have expected such a notion to have found an advocate in your worthy correspondent.
“Is there an instance of an adult descendant of a believer that was admitted into the church throughout the whole of the New Testament?” Yes, several. All the households before mentioned were adults, and some of them were doubtless descendants from the heads of those families. But I suppose your correspondent means there is no instance of there being admitted at a distance of time after their parents. And this I believe is true. But it is equally true that there is no instance of a wife, a husband, or a child, being converted after their partners or their parents; cases which nevertheless, no doubt, frequently occurred. The truth is, the New Testament is a history of the first planting of the church, and not of its progress. If such evidence as this amounts to “a moral certainty” that children were received into the church with their parents, I am at a loss what to denominate uncertainty.
The Scriptures inculcate a strict and holy discipline, both in the church and in the family; and I cannot but consider it as a strong presumption against the practice for which your correspondent pleads, that the command to “bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” is addressed not to ministers or churches, but to parents. Nor is there, that I recollect, in all that is said in the apostolic Epistles, to parents or children, a word which implies the latter to have stood in the relation of church members.
There is some ingenuity in what is said in answer to objections; and if moral and positive duties must be confounded, and we are driven to reason from analogy on the one as well as the other, there may be some force in it. But if positive institutes require Scripture precept or example, the want of these must needs be the grand, and, I suspect, the insurmountable objection.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 499–501). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.