The Practice of Associationalism as Implemented by our Forefathers
There is still another important facet of our question which needs to be answered, and it is this: What did these associations do? Did they erect any kind of structure to carry on the work that they wanted to do? Did they ever collect funds and use them to support a “staff ” or “administrators” of any kind? Some, tainted by the excesses of 19th century Landmarkism, argue that there was no structure present in these associations, and that attempts to erect an association with a formal structure exceed the associationalism of our Baptist predecessors. What do the records tell us?
In one sense, these questions do not really address the circumstances of our forerunners. They assume that their application of principles must have been of necessity identical to ours in order for our practices to be valid. Perhaps the question is better stated, “did they erect structures that approximate the employment of ‘staff’ or ‘administrators’ or such in a modern context?” The answer is, Yes, they did.
Several examples are worth noting. The first is from the records of the Western Association meeting in May, 1654. At that gathering a long discussion was held over the propriety of ordaining Thomas Collier to the work that he had already been involved with for almost a decade, namely planting churches in the southwestern counties of England. The records state,
After some tyme had been spent in way of wayting on the Lord, wee were then exercised in a way of debate conserning the chiefe end of our meeting, namely, the more orderly ordaining of brother Thomas Collyer for the performance of that worke hee hath beene a long tyme exercised in, namely, in gathering and confirming the church. . . . They briefly and fully, one by one, with much fayth concluded it there duty to procede in a further and more orderly ordaining and appoyntinge our deerly beloved brother Thomas Collier in the name of our Lord Jesus and of his churches who were one in it, to the worke of the ministrey to the worlde and in the churches which was performed by two brethren . . . . 
It is difficult to know exactly what to make of this act. Joseph Ivimey interpreted it thus: “The office to which Mr. Collier . . . had been ordained, was that of a messenger of the churches, exercising a kind of general superintendency over all the associated churches.” Probably, he reads too much into these words. In any case, Collier was the recognized leader of the Western Association, and was ordained by the association. An examination of the circular letters sent out by the association shows that Collier was the most prominent member, even at times signing the letters “In the name, and by the appointment of the whole, Thomas Collier.” In a personal letter written in 1657 and addressed to “the churches of Christ in the county of Somerset and the counties near adjacent” he says, “I have found my heart somewhat enlarged in that care God and his people have laid upon me and reposed in me, though unfit for such a work as this is,” and at the end of the same letter, he sounds apostolic:
amongst the rest of Zion’s sons, I can say, I trust through grace that you are in my heart to live and die with you and, if you stand fast, I live. I have written these things unto you, not as one that hath dominion over your faith but as a poor helper of your joy, that if by any means I might fulfill my ministery and give account with joy in faithfulness to the Lord and your souls have I written this. 
He was in some sense part of an “extra-church structure” approved and even ordained by the Association.
Thirty years later, among some of the Particular Baptist churches, there was a stubborn resistance to “employ” anyone, even pastors. It was this problem, among others, that led to the call for the 1689 assembly issued in July of 1689. In that letter, the London pastors who sent out the call for the Assembly state,
the great neglect of the present ministry is one thing, together with that general unconcernedness there generally seems to be, of giving fit and proper encouragement for the raising up an able and honourable ministry for the time to come; with many other things which, we hope, we are not left wholly in the dark about, which we find we are not in a capacity to prevent and cure (as instruments in the hand of God, and his blessing attending our christian endeavours) unless we can obtain a general meeting here in London. . . . 
This letter argues that there are several pressing issues, especially the lack of pastoral support and the need for pastoral training, which could only be remedied by a “general meeting.” In response, representatives from 107 churches all over the nation (though the majority were from the southern half of the country) came together for a week of business. The Assembly, when convened, took several concrete steps to address the problems and implement solutions. They endorsed the anonymous publication of The Gospel Minister’s Maintenance Vindicated (written by Benjamin Keach), a lengthy appeal to the churches to take up their responsibility to provide financial support for their pastors.
In addition, they erected a structure to attempt to deal with this problem, as well as that of the provision of ministerial education. They established a fund, to be administered by a committee of 9 men from different London Churches. These men were authorized to solicit, receive and distribute financial contributions from the member churches for the support of poor pastors and young men desiring to train for the ministry. The churches were strongly urged to participate in this fund. In the Narratives, one notices that much of the discussion of the Assemblies was taken up with organizing and promoting the fund. At the 1690 General Assembly, they modified the working of the fund, and expanded the board of trustees to 12 (although 5 was a quorum). In any case, their methodology included a formal structure. They did not urge one of the churches to take upon itself the development of a means to meet the need, instead they unanimously erected a structure to meet the need. This is the logical expression of their doctrine of church communion. To use the words of paragraph 15 of chapter 26 in the Confession, this was a case of “difficulty” in “administration” in which “the churches in general [were] concerned,” and since they held communion together, they decided on a course of action, and reported it to the churches.
A third illustration may be found in the minutes of the Philadelphia Association some eighty years later:
1766, That it is most necessary for the good of the Baptist interest, that the Association have at their disposal every year a sum of money. Accordingly it was further agreed: That the churches, henceforth, do make a collection every quarter, and send the same yearly to the Association, to be by them deposited in the hands of trustees; the interest whereof only to be by them laid out every year in support of ministers travelling on the errand of the churches, or otherwise, as the necessities of said churches shall require.
1771, Item #6: A motion being made in the Association, relative to the appointment of an Evangelist, it was universally agreed that such an appointment promised much advantage to the Baptist interests. Five ministers were put in nomination for the office, viz.: Rev. Messrs. John Gano, Benjamin Miller, Samuel Jones, David Jones, Morgan Edwards. The choice fell on the last, which he accepted on the conditions then specified.
1773, Item #14: The usefuleness of a travelling minister on this continent appearing more manifest by trials, and Brother Morgan Edwards declining the office, it was agreed, that Brother John Gano be a messenger of the churches for this year; and that the treasurer do pay him the interest of the Association fund, to help defraying his expenses.
1774 (May 25), Item #8: A motion being made, that Brother John Gano should give an account of his travels to the southward: he accordingly did , by which it appears he has been indefatigable in his labors, and that a minister, travelling annually, according to the plan proposed, may answer very valuable purposes.
1774 (Oct. 12-14), Item #17: Voted, That Brother Gano be paid by the treasurer the interest due on the Association fund, towards defraying his expenses in travelling the last year: accordingly he received £12.
Apparently, the Philadelphia Association saw no conflict between their existence as an association and the opportunity to send out men and compensate them for their expenses. They did not turn to one of the churches to meet the need (and it must be remembered that in the instance of John Gano, he was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of New York at this time), they took upon themselves the right and responsibility to send men out to meet the needs. They established this fund for the purpose of assisting the work of the association of churches.
The examples could be multiplied. The records from the 17th and 18th centuries are full of instances where associations erected structures to meet various needs: ministerial training, church planting, ministerial relief, benevolence, and a variety of other causes. The notion that Baptist associations have not been willing to develop formal mechanisms to meet pressing needs has no support in the historical record.
These unions of churches were always careful to maintain and respect the rights of their local churches, but they did not view autonomy and independency as antagonistic to cooperation across a wide spectrum of activities. Some men were appointed to visit churches in order to help them establish a settled ministry, others to solicit, receive and distribute funds in the name of the Assembly, others to go out into dark places and plant churches. They sought to work together for ministerial education, the settling of disputes, and eventually, to support foreign missions. But in so many ways, these associations were active and alive. Fellowship in itself was a good thing, but prayer and friendship did not satisfy the level of “communion” required from the body of Christ. Mutual recognition, principled cooperation and financial support were important components of true communion.
White, Association Records, 103.
Joseph Ivimey, History of the English Baptists (London: 1830), 4:292.
See White, Association Records, 109, note 51.
Ibid., 88, 92.
A.D. Gillette, ed. Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association (Atlas, Mich.: Baptist Book Trust, n.d. reprint), 97, 119, 130, 135, 142.
Notice the five activities of the Midlands Association printed above as another example.