Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea

Visible_Sts_LGMy studies in the history of reformed political theory have led me into some very interesting waters regarding the nature of the church. The Congregationalists, part of the Second Reformation in England, noted that the earlier “Reformation from the gross, idolatrous part of antichristianism was engaged in with some heroic courage and resolution; but the coldness and indifference of Protestants to any farther progress almost ever since is not a little to be lamented.” (Isaac Chauncey, in the Preface to Owen’s The True Nature of a Gospel Church) Writing in defense of these reformers, Scottish Presbyterian Geddes MacGregor, in his book Corpus Christi, notes:

The historical association of the renaissance of learning with the Reformation has often obscured the fact that the Reformers, Calvin not least, were thoroughly schooled in medieval ways of thought. However much they returned to the primitive sources, as the new learning taught them to do, they still thought in medieval categories, in terms of the scholasticism and canon law in which they had been trained. Even in their repudiation of certain medieval notions in the light of their reading of Scripture, their arguments presuppose the background with which they and their contemporaries were familiar, and it is especially impossible to understand the doctrine of the Church in the Reformed tradition without taking that complex medieval background into account.

Congregationalists challenged this medieval view of the church, that is, they rejected the idea that the catholic (universal) church had any visible institution. They argued that

The church of Christ, according as it is represented unto us, or described by the Holy Spirit of God, in the Old and New Testament, hath but a twofold consideration, — as catholic and mystical, or as visible and organized in particular congregations… There is no other sort of visible church of Christ organized, the subject of the aforesaid institutions spoken of, but a particular church or congregation (either in the Old or New Testament), where all the members thereof do ordinarily meet together in one place to hold communion one with another in some one or more great ordinances of Christ… visible churches being but Christ’s tents and tabernacles, which he sometimes setteth up and sometimes takes down and removes at his pleasure, as he sees best for his glory in the world. (Chauncey)

This concept was referred to as churches “gathered” out of the world, as opposed to the idea that the church embraced the known world. This was developed through the study of Scripture in direct opposition to the national church of England. If the Congregationalists were right, and the national church model assumed during the reformation was wrong, then this has drastic consequences for political philosophy (which I hope to unpack in subsequent posts).

For now, here is an outline of a tremendous book called Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea to introduce you to the debate (here is an Evernote link to the outline since the blog messed up the formatting). Also, make sure to compare the WCF Ch. 25 “Of the Church” with Savoy Ch. 26 “Of the Church”

The English emigrants to New England were the first Puritans to restrict membership in the church to visible saints, to persons, that is, who had felt the stirrings of grace in their souls, and who could demonstrate this fact to the satisfaction of other saints. The early Separatists had demanded the exclusion from the church of the visibly wicked; the later Separatists, and especially Henry Ainsworth, had implied that the exclusion of the wicked meant the inclusion only of saints; and at the same time the non separating English Puritan divines had been teaching their readers and listeners how to recognize the movements of grace within the soul and thus to determine whether one was a saint or not. It had remained for the New Englanders to combine and carry these ideas to fruition by constructing their churches entirely of persons who had demonstrated their sainthood to one another. (113)

  1. The Ideal of a Pure Church
    1. perennial problem of corrupt church membership throughout Christian history
    2. Donatists were the first to try to reform corrupt church membership by seeking pure churches
      1. Augustine responded with invisible/visible distinction
        1. invisible = the elect from all time (pure)
        2. visible = living persons who professed belief in Christianity (impure)
      2. The reformation re-ignited this debate
      3. Protestants who felt the Church of England still needed further reformation after Queen Mary were derided as Puritans – a term meant to evoke the idea of Donatists
        1. part of this English reformation focused on the membership of the church
          1. Roman Catholic priests under Mary became Protestant ministers under Elizabeth – without repenting
          2. Immoral & ignorant men were appointed ministers as well
          3. Thus the membership was also immoral and corrupt
            1. “What a pitifull thing is it, to come into a congregation of one or two thousand souls, and not to find about four or fiue that are able to giue an account of their faith in any tollerable manner, whereby it may be said probably, ‘This is a Christian man, or hee is a childe of the Church.” (A Part of a Register [Edinburgh, 1593], p. 305)
          4. The Puritans believed that the power of excommunication, along with lesser disciplinary powers, belonged of right to individual churches and their ministers; but in the Church of England, as in that of Rome, the bishops claimed all disciplinary powers and denied them to the churches.
            1. Bishops’ courts completely corrupt
            2. “You are in league with hell, and have made a covenant with death” (John Udall, whom the bishops then sentenced to death)
            3. In 16th century (prior to 1640), Puritans did not distinguish between Presbyterian and Independent/Congregational
              1. Puritan church = “a company or congregation of the faithful called and gathered out of the world by the preachinge of the Gospell, who following and embracing true religion, do in one unity of Spirit strengthen and comfort one another, daily growing and increasing in true faith, framing their lives, government, orders and ceremonies according to the word of God.” (John Field, 1572, “Second Parte of a Register)
            4. Majority’s aim was to gain control of the existing government and through the government to reform the church
            5. Minority felt that separation was necessary
              1. Robert Browne, 1580 “Reformation without Tarrying for Any” – thus called Brownists
              2. Several separatist churches fled to Amsterdam (Henry Barrow & John Greenwood executed in England 1593) including John Robinson’s church (eventually became the Plymouth Pilgrims)
              3. Non-separating Puritans rebuked Separatists for schism (separating from the church)
                1. Separatists replied that the Church of England was no true church, because:
                  1. lacked discipline
                    1. this was a step beyond Calvin’s two marks of a church: preaching of the Word & administration of the sacraments (if these existed, then separation was schism) Institutes 4.1-2
                      1. Separatist Henry Barrow (executed 1593) said that Calvin was “a painful and profitable instrument [of God], in the things he saw and times he served in” but “being so newly escaped out of the smoky furnace of poperie, he could not suddenly see or attain unto the perfect beauty of Zion.” (Brief Discoverie) To make preaching and the sacraments the distinguishing criteria of a church and discipline a mere “hang-by” was to speak in contradictions, for without discipline there could be no proper administration of the sacraments to those worthy to receive them.
                  2. wasn’t founded properly in the first place
                    1. “All this people… were in one day, with the blast of Queen Elizabeth’s trumpet, of ignorant papists and gross idolators, made faithful Christians” (Barrow, Brief Discoverie, p.10) following Calvin, who “at the first dash made no scruple to receive all the whole state, even all the profane ignorant people into the bosom of the Church” (note: Calvin did, however, bar the openly wicked). This indiscriminate gathering of saints and sinners into a supposed church had become, Barrow believed, “a miserable precedent, and pernicious example, even unto all Europe, to fall into the like transgression”
                    2. a church must originate as a voluntary association of persons worthy to worship God
                      1. a church could not be formed by governmental compulsion or by constraint of the wicked, but only by free consent of the good
                      2. thus church = local congregation voluntarily covenanted together, not a “whole people” (country)
                        1. thus each congregation is independent and supported voluntarily
                      3. Some non-separating Puritans agreed w/ congregationalism (Henry Jacob, William Ames, Paul Baynes, William Bradshaw)
                        1. Jacob later became semi-separatist by forming his own congregation (which eventually became the first particular baptist church in England)
                    3. even if proper discipline were practiced, it would still not be a true church
  2. The Separatist Contribution
    1. What were the qualifications for membership in a separatist church? (what is meant by “faithful and holy”)
      1. knowledge of Christian doctrine
        1. *did not require a profession of saving faith/religious experience
        2. The faith implied in a confession of faith was not saving faith but simply an intellectual understanding of, and consent to, a set of doctrines; it was the product, not of grace but of instruction. To distinguish such faith from saving faith, Puritans often called it “general” or “historical” faith.
          1. The Separatists, like most Christians, Protestant or Catholic, believed in infant baptism. Since baptism was the symbol of admission to the church, they therefore accepted children, provisionally at least, as members of the church. Only children whose parents or guardians were members received this privilege, but the child himself was not expected to display any sign of divine favor other than in his choice of parents. In order to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper and the other privileges of adult membership, he must first grow old enough to “examine himself.” When he felt that he had reached a belief and understanding of Christian doctrine and a reasonable ability to live in obedience to God’s commandments, he demonstrated the fact to the church by making a profession of faith and assenting to the church covenant, and then he took his place at the Lord’s Supper.There is no evidence that the profession which transformed a child member into an adult member involved any demonstration of saving faith, but there is again evidence of the necessity of understanding before professing. The ministers or elders of the church were expected to spend some time in weekly catechizing of the children in order to bring them to the necessary understanding
        3. Saving faith lay in the heart, where only God could see it; the visible church could not and should not examine the hearts of its members
      2. lack of heresy
      3. reject fellowship with Church of England
      4. voluntary submission to the discipline of the church (church covenant)
      5. good behavior
        1. Many separatist churches became preoccupied with excommunication and good behavior
    2. Re-interpretation of qualifications: Saving Faith
      1. non-Separating Puritans began arguing that the only thing necessary for a church was men with faith (thus CofE is true church)
      2. Ainsworth responded that CofE claims to produce faith, while separatists claim they were founded in faith. ”[P]eople must be regenerate and born again before they may be admitted into any particular church.”
        1. Ainsworth also pressed the covenant of grace’s relation to the church covenant: “Your church can show no covenant that was made between Christ and her, at any time: the gathering and planting of your church having been by the Magistrates authority; not by the word of Christ, winning men’s souls unto his faith, separating them from the unbelievers and taking them into communion with himself.”
        2. “every people called of God into covenant and communion with Christ, and one with another, and so walking, though with much weakness, ignorance, and daily sin; is to be esteemed a true church of God: but they that are not so called and come into covenant with the Lord, howsoever they may profess many excellent truths, yet want they the main essential thing which makes a true church.”
        3. He re-interpreted the church member’s confession of faith to refer to confessing of saving faith. By 1620 Ainsworth was condemning the creed and confession of faith which the Roman Catholics used as “but an assent to the truth of God’s promises; and not a confidence in their justification in particular.”
          1. Barrow had [earlier] charged simply that the Anglican confession did not require real understanding; Ainsworth said that the Catholic confession did not require individual confidence of salvation, that is, saving faith.
        4. John Robinson (Pilgrims) agreed with Ainsworth
      3. Membership procedures remained the same (judgment of charity), but with different interpretation of the confession
    3. By 1630, New England churches added a test of saving faith (declaration of an experience of grace in their life)
  3. The New England System
    1. The Massachusetts Bay Puritan founders were not Separatists (still believed CofE was a true church), but they were Congregational (following Ames, Baynes, Bradshaw, etc)
    2. “Saving Faith Membership” likely started by Massachusetts Non-Separating Puritans (not from Holland, England, or Plymouth). It was fully established there by 1640
      1. Non-Separating Puritans in England developed the chain of salvation/morphology of conversion (i.e. William Perkins)
      2. Non-Separating Puritans insisted that faith was the indispensable criterion of the church (which is why they refused to separate)
        1. Ames: “the profession of the true faith is the most essential note of the Church” and “that same thing in profession doth make a Church visible, which by its inward and real nature doth make a mystical Church, that is, faith” (Marrow of Sacred Divinity)
        2. Came to the conclusion that saving faith should be tested, but they had no control of membership in the Church of England. Thus they applied it to communion (where they had the power to exclude “an open and notorious evil liver”).
          1. However, they told members to test themselves before coming to the table (self-examination)
          2. A few ministers gathered together special groups from within a church or from several churches.
          3. Henry Jacob was the only non-separating Puritan to setup an independent congregation in (in 1614, which eventually became the first particular baptist church) consisting of 10 members.
            1. unclear if they tested the faith of members
            2. Jacob denied that “true faith is the very form and essence of the [visible] church”
      3. Massachusetts likely learned how to implement Congregationalism from Plymouth (since they had only theory – no practice)
      4. Salem was likely Separatist (then became non-Separatist and adopted new test of faith after Cotton’s sermon at Salem)
      5. Over the next 10 years, 20,000 settlers landed in New England. Thus they developed a means of “gathering” churches from qualified Christians, and then testing the faith of all subsequent members by requiring them to give an account of their “experience of grace” or “demonstration of a work of grace”.
        1. Most likely from the influence of John Cotton who seems to have stressed unmerited saving grace more than any other non-Separatist minister and to have placed the coming of faith at a somewhat later stage in the morphology of conversion.
          1. He also insisted that faith was the principal ingredient of a true church and that a church covenant formed on any other basis was a covenant of works only.
          2. His preaching sparked a bit of a revival and members may have begun to voluntary give an account of their conversion experiences
          3. John Cotton: “How it pleased God to work in them, to bring them home to Christ, whether the law have convinced them of sinne, how the Lord hath wonne them to deny themselves and their owne rightouesnesse, and to rely on the righteousnesse of Christ.”
        2. Whatever the practices of the Boston church in 1634, by the next year a number of ministers, whether prompted by Cotton or by their own reasoning, had decided that evidence of a work of grace in the heart, or in other words, saving faith, was a necessary qualification for church membership.
      6. The Massachussetts churches were to be non separating, emphasizing faith as the essence of the church; and they were to ensure the presence of faith in their members by a screening process that included narratives of religious experiences.
        1. While affirming the old distinction between the visible and the invisible church, they thus narrowed the distance between the two far more drastically than the Separatists had done.
        2. Mass. General Court passed law in 1636 requiring this of all churches (because the civil magistrates had to approve new churches)
          1. In 1631, freemanship (right to vote and hold office in civil government) was opened to all church members. With the 1636 law, church membership, and thus freemanship, was restricted to those who could demonstrate saving faith.
        3. Thomas Hooker left to found Connecticut because he thought this practice was too strict (he too tested faith, but more charitably, and not before the congregation, and he placed saving faith much earlier in the morphology of conversion)
          1. If a man “live not in the commission of any known sin, nor in the neglect of any known duty, and can give a reason of his hope towards God” he was fit for church membership. (Thus creating a more standardized test)
    3. The New England system attracted attention in England (The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared) and thus won adherents in England
      1. Debate between Presbyterians and Independents was largely about church membership
        1. With the calling of the Long Parliament in 1641, the opportunity to reform the Church of England was suddenly at hand. But when the Puritans set about the task, they found themselves divided about a number of details. The one that has received most attention from historians was the question of whether the churches should be united in a presbyterial and synodical organization or whether each church should be independent of the others. To many of the Puritans themselves, however, the question which loomed largest was that of church membership. Those who favored congregational independence also favored the New England method of restricting membership. In arguing against the Independents, the Presbyterians furnished one more testimony to the novelty of the New England practice. Robert Baillie, the most articulate enemy of the Independents, thought that testing the faith of prospective members was the crucial difference that divided Presbyterians from Independents. And while he attacked Independency as the child of separation, he correctly perceived that the two were not identical. The Independents, he said in a passage discussing tests of faith:
          1. “much out-runne the Brownists; for they [the Brownists] did never offer to separate upon this ground alone; and the matter whereupon here they stumbled, was only open profaneness and that incorrigible, either through want of power or want of care to remedy it. If the profaneness was not open and visible, or if the Church had her full power to execute discipline, and according to her power made conscience really to censure scandals: These things as I conceive, would have abundantly satisfied the Brownists, and cured their separation.But the Independents now do draw them up much higher then they were wont to stand; they teach them to stumble not only at open profaneness, but at the want of true grace; yea, at the want of convincing signs of regeneration. (“Dissuasive p. 156)
  4. The Halfway Covenant
    1. Dilemma: How can the church continue to reach out to the world (expose them to the means of grace) if they are gathering themselves out of the world?
      1. No problem for Anglican & RCC because all are included (and compelled) within the visible church
      2. Separatists replied that the ministry of the church was not to convert souls “but to fede and edifie” and discipline those already converted. Thus they denied the evangelistic function of the church.
      3. [This is the context for the addition in the Savoy and LBCF of Chapter 20 “Of the Gospel and the Extent of Grace Thereof”]
      4. New England churches withheld baptism and the Lord’s supper from all but visible saints (thus departing from their reformed predecessors)
      5. In 1646 Massachussetts passed a law requiring everyone within a town to attend the preaching of the Word
    2. Dilemma: As the saints died and their children grew up, there had to be a way of getting the new generation into the church
      1. “The Baptists, with a yearning for purity similar to that of the Puritans, solved the problem”
      2. Not a problem for Separatists, who did not require profession of saving faith
      3. Congregationalists baptized infants, making them members of the church, but required a profession of saving faith for access to the Lord’s Table (Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline 1646)
        1. But what happens to the membership of a grown infant who does not profess saving faith?
          1. Could not be excommunicated for failure to display signs of saving faith.
            1. If they have children, may those children be baptized and admitted as members?
              1. “If he remained a member, his child must be entitled to baptism, and if so, why not that child’s child too, and so on until the church should cease to be a company of the faithful and should become a genealogical society of the descendants of the faithful.”
              2. “Given both infant baptism and the restriction of church membership to visible saints, it was impossible for the Puritans either to evade the questions just posed or to answer them without an elaborate casuistry that bred dissatisfaction and disagreement. The history of the New England churches during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was in large measure a history of these dissatisfactions and disagreements.”
              3. Synod 1657, 1662 (The Halfway Covenant):
                1. They that according to Scripture are members of the visible church are the subjects of baptism.
                2. The members of the visible church according to Scripture, are confederate visible believers in particular churches, and their infant seed ie children in minority, whose next parents are one or both of them in covenant.
                3. The infant seed of confederate visible believers are members of the same church with their parents; and when grown up are personally under the watch discipline and government of that church.
                4. Those adult persons are not therefore to be admitted to full communion merely because they are and continue members without such further qualifications as the word of God requireth thereunto.
                5. Such church members, who are admitted in minority, understanding the doctrine of faith, and publicly professing their assent thereunto, not scandalous in life, and solemnly owning the covenant before the church, wherein they give up themselves and their children to the Lord, and subject themselves to the government of Christ in the church, their children are to be baptized.
              4. Thus Halfway Covenant = members not in full communion (couldn’t vote or receive Lord’s Supper)
                1. Opponents of the Halfway Covenant either eventually recanted (Increase Mather) or repudiated infant baptism
                2. “The halfway covenant, I would maintain then, was neither a sign of decline in piety nor a betrayal of the standards of the founding fathers, but an honest attempt to rescue the concept of a church of visible saints from the tangle of problems created in time by human reproduction.”
  5. Full Circle
    1. New England began to extend baptism to all who professed “historical” faith, while restricting the Lord’s Table to those who profess “saving” faith
      1. “Increase Mather, who had initially opposed the synod’s extension of baptism and its institution of halfway membership, had by 1675 become its advocate, and before the end of the century he had decided to extend baptism and halfway membership far more widely than the synod had proposed. In promoting the union of Congregational and Presbyterian churches in London in 1690 and 1691, Mather had agreed to a definition of church membership as including “such persons as are knowing and sound in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion, without scandal in their lives; and to a judgment regulated by the Word of God, are persons of visible godliness and honesty; credibly professing cordial subjection to Jesus Christ.” Though Increase Mather and his son Cotton interpreted this statement so as to still require a work of saving grace for participation in the Lord’s Supper, they both extended baptism to all professing Christians of good behavior. Cotton Mather, in advocating the principles of the union, emphasized that “Persons may be disciples, while they are not yet risen to the more experienced state of brethren; and there may be subjects in the kingdom, which have not yet all the privileges that the members of the corporations lay claim unto: now baptism should belong sure, to all the disciples and subjects of our Lord. From a nursery thus watered with baptism, our churches may be supply’d from time to time and multitudes of well-disposed people who by doubts and fears are for a while discouraged from the Lord’s table may thus be kept under engagements to be the Lord’s.”
      2. 1699 Cambridge Synod “That such as to do profess the true Christian religion, and do not by any fundamental error in doctrine, or by a scandalous conversation contradict that profession; they and their children do belong unto the visible church and have right unto baptism; whether they be joined in fellowship with a particular church or not.”
    2. Solomon Stoddard (Northhampton) in 1677 began to practice open communion (extending full membership to those who profess “historical” faith) as a converting ordinance
      1. he rejected the concept of a “gathered” church in favor of the Presbyterian view (geographical area consisting of all who profess Christianity – historical and saving faith)
      2. Increase Mather predicted this would degrade churches until godly people in New England would have to “gather churches out of churches”
        1. Which happened in a new Separatist movement starting around 1740
        2. Jonathan Edwards joined in 1748 by restricting the Lord’s Supper and baptism to visible saints (and their children), thus repudiating the halfway covenant.

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