Questions about the Historical Record

It is argued that the Independents did not have any structures equivalent to the Baptist associations, and that they were opposed to such structures.  In the opinion of this author, such a notion is a misreading of the sources and the historical circumstances in which the Independents wrote. Williston Walker states,

But though the great body of Presbyterians and Congregationalists walked in divided paths, there were not wanting a number of attempts at union under the Commonwealth.  Such a union was effected, on principles which reflect credit on the Christian charity of the two parties, in the far northwestern counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland in 1656.  At about the same time similar associations came into being in Worcestershire, Devonshire, Essex, Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Yorkshire, and Lancashire. . . . But though these bodies had some partial success in fusing together rival parties in these various districts of England, the populous region immediately about London saw no real union between them under the Commonwealth.[1]

Walker could also have mentioned the Exeter Assembly, which admitted Independents into membership in 1656.[2]

What were these unions like?  Walker provides some excerpts from “The Agreement of the Associated Ministers & Churches of the Counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland”:

Albeit we differ as to the power of associated churches over particular congregations; yet, we agree that it is not only lawful and useful, but in many cases necessary, that several churches should hold communion and correspondency together; and to that end we resolve to associate our selves, & to keep frequent meetings for advice and help, as occasion shall require.

We take ourselves and our churches bound to follow whatsoever advice, direction or reproof, (being agreeable to the word) any of us shall receive from the Brethren in association with us. . . .

For the better carrying on of our intended association, we resolve to observe the following rules.

1. We judge it convenient to divide our selves into three associations, (viz.) at Carlile, at Penrith, and Cockermouth, and shall meet once a Moneth, or more or less, as occasion shall require, and the major part of the association shall think fit.

2. At these meetings we shall hear and determine things of common concernment, endeavour to resolve doubts, compose differences, consider the justness & weight of the grounds and reasons of Ministers removals from any place, when such cases shall fall out, consult and advise about special emmergencies that may happen to our Ministry or congregations in particular.[3]

While it may be that there were no exclusively Congregational associations in existence in 1658, there were many Congregational churches in active membership in the regional paedobaptist associations.  These (low) Presbyterian and Independent churches put aside their differences and attempted to function side by side in formal associations.  The words above are self-explanatory, and well describe the level of “communion” they believed was necessary between churches.  Communion involved formal associations.

Such an action was based on the type of theological reasoning promoted by John Cotton.  When his work The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven was printed in London in 1644, Philip Nye and Thomas Goodwin collaborated on a preface which explained their reasons for issuing the book, and summarized its contents.  In that preface they stated,

And because these particular congregations, both elders and people, may disagree and miscarry, and abuse this power committed to them; he [i.e. Cotton] therefore, secondly, asserteth an association or communion of churches sending their elders and messengers into a synod, (so he purposely chooseth to style those assemblies of elders, which the reformed churches do call classes or presbyteries, that so he might distinguish them from those presbyteries of congregations before mentioned) and acknowledges that it is an ordinance of Christ, unto whom Christ hath (in relation to rectifying maladministrations and healing dissentions in particular congregations, and the like cases) committed a due and just measure of power, suited and proportioned to those ends; and furnished them, not only with ability to give counsel and advice, but further upon such occasions with a ministerial power and authority to determine, declare and enjoin such things as may tend to the reducing such congregations to right and peace.[4]

In the body of the work, (which Ziff says was Cotton’s “considered position on church polity”[5]) Cotton says,

It is a safe and wholesome, and holy ordinance of Christ, for such particular churches to join together in holy covenant or communion, and consolation among themselves, to administer all their church affairs, (which are of weighty, and difficult and common concernment) not without common consultation and consent of other churches about them.[6]

These words are clear and to the point under consideration.  This communion is so formal that Cotton equates it with a “holy covenant.”  Of course in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the Independent congregational churches held a very rigorous communion, as they were the established churches of the commonwealths, supported by the state and deeply involved in its affairs.  They went beyond the type of relationships existing among the Independent churches in England.[7]

Thomas Goodwin, in a discussion on “non-communion” of churches also asserted the propriety of associations:

Now, the next question will be, how far this law of communion of churches will draw on a subjection of one church to another, and will tend to order churches?  and what proceeding, by virtue hereof, one church may have toward another?  and what one church, or many churches, is to give to any church?

We lay this for a general ground, that as there are particular duties, and in a manner for the external part all the same kind of duties, which are to pass between a particular church and the members thereof; therefore, by analogy, there may be the same proceedings used and courses taken for the discharge of these duties between church and church occasionally, as is amongst the others.  As,

1. There is an obligation of one church over another, by virtue of this communion, to inquire in case of jealousy or common fame, and report how it fares with them.  And therefore, there may be an association of churches, whereby, in the meetings of the elders or others deputed, there may be inquiries of miscarriages, which may be equivalent to those annual visitations which have been amongst us.[8]

For Goodwin, the existence of an association of churches provided an appropriate means for inquiries into abuses within churches.

John Owen likewise argued for the propriety of associations, even using the technical terminology argued for above:

I shall farther grant and add hereunto, that, over and above the union that is between the members of several particular churches, by virtue of their interest in the church catholic, which draws after is a necessity for the occasional exercise of duties of love one towards another; and that communion they have, as members of the general church visible, in the profession of the faith once delivered unto the saint; there is a communion also to be observed between these churches, as such, which is sometimes, or may be, exerted in their assemblies by their delegates, for declaring their sense and determining things of joint concernment unto them.[9]

The double use of the word communion is of real interest here.  In the first occurrence, the word evidently bears the sense “fellowship.”  But in the second, which is italicized in the original, the word seems to be used as a technical designation for an association.  This “communion” is in addition to that which ought to exist among true churches.  It is a formal joining for the sake of the benefit of the churches.  Owen was writing against charges made by (high) Presbyterian writers that the Independent churches were schismatic.  In reply, Owen argued against the notion of a national church, but promoted the idea, even the oughtness, of assemblies of delegates from churches.  Some twenty-three years later, Owen replied to William Stillingfleet, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, who also charged the “nonconformists” with schism.  In his reply, Owen again addresses the issue, this time in a way that cannot be mistaken:

I speak not these things . . . against that communion which ought to be among those particular churches, or their associations for their common rule and government in and by their officers; but only to manifest that those Nonconformists who are supposed to adhere unto the institution of particular churches in a peculiar way, do not thereby deserve the imputation of so great and intolerable a guilt as they are charged withal.[10]

John Owen cannot be enlisted as anti-associational.  To the contrary, his writings lend further evidence to the argument proposed above.

The preface to the Savoy Declaration may serve as evidence of the desire present among the Independents for associations of churches:

This accord of ours hath fallen out without having held any correspondency together, or prepared consultation, by which we might come to be advised of one anothers mindes.  We alledge not this as a matter of commendation in us: no, we acknowledge it to have been a great neglect:  And accordingly one of the first proposals for union amongst us was, That there might be a constant correspondence held among the Churches for counsel and mutual edification, so for time to come to prevent the like omission.

We confess that from the first, every, or at least the generality of our Churches, have been in a maner like so many Ships (though holding forth the same general colours) lancht singly, and sailing apart and alone in the vast Ocean of these tumultuating times, and they exposed to every wind of Doctrine, under no other conduct then the Word and Spirit, and their particular Elders and principal Brethren, without Associations among our selves, or so much as holding out common lights to others whereby to know where we were.

But yet whilest we thus confess to our own shame this neglect, let all acknowledge, that God hath ordered it for his high and greater glory . . . .[11]

Two things need to be noticed.  This statement says that the “generality” of the churches have been “sailing apart and alone. . . . without Associations among our selves.”  As noted above, there were several active organizations (having different names) that functioned as associations.  Secondly, these words are a lament of the lack of such associations.  They imply that the authors of the statement desired more formal relations between churches.[12]

I do not wish to misrepresent the case.  Associationalism did not characterize the Independents in the way that it did the Baptists.[13] But it is a misrepresentation to assert that there were no formal associations in which the Independent churches were involved.

It should also be remembered that the Savoy Conference was, in many ways, doomed to fail as a means of bringing reformation to the churches of England.  Oliver Cromwell died 26 days before it began to meet.  His son Richard was impotent as a successor, and the bishops were returned to power in 1660.  From that point on, until 1689, and especially after the enforcement of the Act of Uniformity in 1662, the Congregational churches and their ministers were in a survival mode.  The Clarendon Code drove the ministers from the churches, and they were often hunted by the authorities.  For almost thirty years, their concerns were taken up with existing as churches, never mind implementing a theory of inter-church communion.[14] When toleration was extended to non-conformists in 1689, the Independents soon began to organize formal associations.[15] This is an indication of their affinity for them.

Someone might ask how we may account for some of the apparently anti-organizational statements sometimes cited.  When read in their context, it will be noticed that the primary concern of the authors was to argue against Presbyterianism and/or Episcopacy.  The systems of ascending church courts, and of diocesan bishops were considered to be an imposition on the Scriptural pattern, and thus without warrant.  In the light of much other evidence, it is incorrect to press their words to support an anti-associational notion.  Their practice cries out to the contrary.[16] All of these men supported formal unions among churches, properly organized and functioning.  They were opposed to the Presbyterian and Episcopal systems, but not to church union per se.

According to the light that I have, I maintain my original conclusion that Chapter 26, paragraphs 14 & 15 of the Second London Baptist Confession teach “that churches providentially placed together should associate themselves.  There is an ‘oughtness,’ a duty, to this doctrine.”[17]


Is there historical precedent for active, formal Baptist associations?  Undoubtedly.  Many of the associations of the past may serve as models for the attempts made by Reformed Baptists at the end of the 20th century.  Just as they developed plans according to the needs of the day, so should we.  It may be that we recognize some different needs, and will implement some different solutions.  We live near the beginning of a new millennium, and God has called us to serve the generation in which we live.  This will require much thought, prayerful searching of the Scriptures, and careful planning on the part of many.  But the benefits which may come to us if we do these things are enormous.   Let us take to heart our Baptist heritage, and seek to demonstrate to all who will notice our visible unity.  Let us remember that two are better than one, and that a threefold cord is not easily broken.  Let us face the challenges ahead with courage, trusting in God to use our united efforts for his own glory.


[1]Walker, Creeds, 442.

[2]Allan Brockett, Nonconformity in Exeter (Manchester: University Press, 1962), 8-10. Another such group, of which Thomas Hooker was a member, was the English Congregational Classis of 1621-35 which was formed by English ministers in exile in Holland. They disbanded under pressure from the Dutch political authorities. See Slayden Yarborough, “The Origin of Baptist Associations Among the English Particular Baptists,” Baptist History and Heritage XXIII: no. 2 (April 1988): 18-22. This article is very helpful in tracing the origins of Particular Baptist Associations, especially in light of the thinking of Henry Jacob.

[3]Walker, Creeds, 454.

[4]Larzer Ziff, ed., John Cotton on the Churches of New England (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1968), 75-76.

[5]Ibid., 26.

[6]Ibid., 158.

[7]Time and space preclude a discussion of the relevant material in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. It includes an entire chapter entitled “Of the Communion of Churches one with another,” which is in many ways a restatement of John Cotton’s views.  Cf. Walker, Creeds, 229-34.

[8]Thomas Goodwin, The Government of the Churches of Christ in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, (Eureka, Calif.: Tanski Publications, 1996 reprint), 11:282-83, emphasis mine.

[9]John Owen, Of Schism, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965 reprint), 13:180, emphasis in original.

[10]A Brief Vindication of the Nonconformists from the Charge of Schism in Ibid., 13:333.

[11]Walker, Creeds, 359, emphasis in original.

[12]It is often asserted that John Owen was the author of this preface. Caution needs to be used in this identification.  While John Owen has been suggested as its author, some have questioned this identification.  In any case, he must have approved of its contents, since he was a chief participant in the Savoy Conference.  See Walker, Creeds, 352; Geoffrey Nuttall, Visible Saints: The Congregational Way 1640-1660 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957), 16.

[13]B. R. White, The English Baptists of the 17th Century (London: The Baptist Historical Society, 1983), 66.

[14]During this period, the Baptist Associations did continue to function.  This may have been due to their longstanding existence, and the commitments made by the Baptists to vigorous communion.

[15]Walker, Creeds, 440-462; Michael Watts, The Dissenters (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978), 289-97. An extensive discussion of these Associations may be found in Geoffrey Nuttall’s essay “Assembly and Association in Dissent, 1689-1831” in G.J. Cuming and Derek Baker, ed., Councils and Assemblies, Studies in Church History 7, (Cambridge: University Press, 1971), 289-309.

[16]Both Owen and Goodwin were appointed as Triers in 1654, and Owen and Nye argued for the continuation of the state “Tithe” system in support of ministers. Cf. Watts, Dissenters, 152; A. Thomson, Life of Dr. Owen in The Works of John Owen, I:lix-lxi.

[17]Renihan, A Reformed Baptist Perspective, 14.