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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER VI THE SAYBROOK PLATFORM

The Development Of Religious Liberty In Connecticut by M. Louise Greene, Ph. D.

CHAPTER VI THE SAYBROOK PLATFORM

A Government within a Government.

The Saybrook Platform subdivides into a Confession of Faith, the Heads of Agreement, and the Fifteen Articles.

The Confession of Faith is merely a recommendation of the Savoy Confession as reaffirmed by the Synod of Boston or the Reforming Synod of 1680.

The Heads of Agreement are but a repetition of the articles that, under the same title, were passed in London, in 1691, by fourteen delegates from the Presbyterian and English Congregational churches. Both parties to the Agreement had hoped thereby to establish more firmly their churches and to give them the strength and dignity of a strongly united body. The Heads of Agreement were drafted by three men, Increase Mather, the Massachusetts colonial agent to England, Matthew Mead, a Congregationalist, and John Hone, a Presbyterian, who in his earlier years and by training was a Congregationalist. Naturally, between the influence of the framers and the necessity for including the two religious bodies, this platform inclined towards Congregationalism, but equal necessity led it away from the freedom of the Cambridge Platform, after which it was patterned.

In the Heads of Agreement, the composition of the church is defined according to Congregational standards, as is also the election of its officers. The definition of the powers of the church is not strictly Congregational, because initiative action and governing powers are intrusted to the eldership, while, to the brethren, there is given only the privilege of assenting to such measures as the elders may place before them. The membership in the church, as defined, is semi-Congregational; i. e., in order to become members, persons must be |grounded in the Fundamental Doctrines of religion| and lead moral lives, but they are eligible to communion only after the declaration of their desire |to walk together according to Gospel Rule.| Concerning this declaration the statement is made that |different degrees of Expliciteness shall in no way hinder such Churches from owning each other as Instituted Churches.| Furthermore, no one should be pressed to declare the time and manner of his conversion as proof of his fitness to be received as a communicant. Such an account would, however, be welcome. With reference to parochial bounds, introduced into the primitive Congregationalism of New England, but always existing in the English Presbyterian system, the Heads of Agreement declare them to be |not of Divine Right| but --

for common Edification that church members should live near one another, nor ought they to forsake their church for another without its consent and recommendation.

In respect to the ministry, the Heads of Agreement affirm that it should be learned and competent and approved; that ordinarily, pastors should be considered as ministers only while they continue in office over the church that elected them to its ministry; that ordinarily, in their choosing and calling, advice should be sought from neighboring churches, and that they should be ordained with the aid of neighboring pastors. In the matter of installation into a new office of an elder, previously ordained, churches are to exercise the right of individual judgment and of preference as to reordination. This same right of preference is to be exercised in deciding whether or not a church should support a ruling elder. The Heads of Agreement assert that in the intercommunion of churches there is to be no subordination among them, and that there ought to be frequent friendly consultations between their |Officers.| There are to be |Occasional Meetings of Ministers| of several churches to consult and advise upon |weighty and difficult cases,| and to whose judgments, |particular Churches, their respective Elders and Members, ought to have a reverential regard, and not dissent therefrom, without apparent grounds from the word of God.| The Heads of Agreement command churches to yield obedience and support to the civil authority and to be ready at all times to give the magistrates an account of their affairs.

The Heads of Agreement were the most liberal part of the Saybrook Platform, and were not considered sufficiently
authoritative. Accordingly, --

for the Better Regulation of the Administration of Chh Discipline in Relation to all Cases Ecclesiastical both in Particular Chhs and In Councils to the full Determining and Executing of the Rules in all such cases, --

were added certain resolutions, known as the |Fifteen Articles.| They are in reality the Platform, for all that goes before them is but a reaffirmation of principles already accepted, and the new thing in the document, the advance in ecclesiasticism, is the increased authority permitted and, later, enforced by these Fifteen Articles.

The Articles affirm that power and discipline in connection with all cases of scandal that may arise within a church, ought, the brethren consenting, to be lodged with the elder or elders; and that in all difficult cases, the pastor should take advice of the elders of the neighboring churches before proceeding to censure or pass judgment. In order to facilitate both discipline and mutual oversight, the Articles provide that elders and pastors are to be joined in Associations, meeting at least twice a year, to consult together upon questions of ministerial duty and upon matters of mutual benefit to their churches. From these Associations, delegates were to be chosen annually to meet in one General Association, holding its session in the spring, at the time of the general elections. The Associations were to look after pastorless churches and to recommend candidates for the ministry. Up to this time a man's bachelor of arts degree had been considered sufficient guarantee that he would make a capable minister. Henceforth, there could no longer be complaint that |there was no uniform method of introducing candidates to the ministry nor sufficient opportunity for churches to confer together in order to their seeing and acting harmoniously.| In order that there should be no more confusion arising from calling councils against councils with their often conflicting judgments, the Articles formed Consociations, or unions of churches within certain limits, usually those of a county. These Consociations were to assist upon all great or important ecclesiastical occasions. They were to preside over all ordinations or installations; they were to decide upon the dismissal of members, and upon all difficulties arising within any church within their district. If necessary, Consociations could be joined in council. Their decisions were to have the force of a judgment or sentence only when they were |approved by the major part of the elders present and by such a number of the messengers| -- one or two from each church -- as should constitute a majority vote. A church could call upon its Consociation for advice before sentencing an offender, but the offender could not appeal to the Consociation without the consent of his church. By these last provisions, authority and power tended still more to concentrate in the hands of the elders. The Fifteen Articles, though they did not make the judgments of the Consociations decisive, urged upon individual churches a reverent regard for them.

The attitude of the churches towards these Fifteen Articles varied, and it was already known in the Synod that such would be the case. Some churches would find them more palatable than others. Many were already converts to the Rev. Solomon Stoddard's insistent teaching that |a National Synod is the highest ecclesiastical authority upon earth,| that every man must stand to the judgment of a National Synod. Even five years before the convening of the Synod at Saybrook, there had issued from a meeting of the Yale trustees,[a] |altogether the most representative ecclesiastical gathering in the colony,| a circular letter which urged the Connecticut ministers to agree on some unifying confession of creed, and that such be recommended by the General Court to the consideration of the people. The immediate answer to the letter, if any, is unknown. Trumbull says that --

the proposal was universally acceptable, and the churches and the ministers of the several counties met in a consociated council and gave their assent to the Westminster and Savoy Confessions of Faith.

It seems that they also |drew up certain rules of ecclesiastical discipline as preparatory to a General Synod which they still had in contemplation,| but took no further step to obtain the approval of the Court. This first definite move toward the Saybrook system bore fruit when the Fifteen Articles were added to the Platform. Their authoritative tone was to satisfy those within the churches who preferred Presbyterian classes and synods, while their interpretation could be modified to please the adherents of a purer Congregationalism by reading them in the light of the Heads of Agreement which preceded them. Of their possible purport two great authorities upon Congregationalism speak as follows. Dr. Bacon writes: --

The |Articles| by whomsoever penned, were obviously a compromise between the Presbyterian interest and the Congregational; and like most compromises, they were (I do not say by design) of doubtful interpretation. Interpreted by a Presbyterian, they might seem to subject the Churches completely to the authoritative government of classes or presbyteries under the name of consociations. Interpreted by a Congregationalist, they might seem to provide for nothing more than a stated Council, in which neighboring Churches, voluntarily confederate, could consult together, and the proper function of which should be not to speak imperatively, but, when regularly called, to |hold forth light| in cases of difficulty or perplexity.

Dr. Dexter sums them up in the following words: --

Taken by themselves, the fifteen articles were stringent enough to satisfy the most ardent High Churchmen among the
Congregationalists of that day; taken, however, in connection with the London document previously adopted, and by the spirit of which -- apparently -- they were always to be construed, their stringency became matter of differing judgment, so that what on the whole was their intent has never been settled to this day.

In accordance with the system of government outlined in the Platform, the churches of the colony were at once formed into five Associations and five Consociations, one each in New Haven, New London, and Fairfield counties, and two in Hartford. In later years, new bodies were organized, as the other four Connecticut counties were set off from these original ones. The churches of the New Haven county Consociation, long cleaving to the purest Congregationalism, refused to adopt the Platform until they had recorded their liberal construction of it. Fairfield went to the other extreme, and put on record their acceptance of the Consociations as church courts. Hartford and New London accepted the Platform as a whole, as it came from the synod, leaving to time the decision as to its loose or strict construction.

A legislative act was necessary to make the Platform the legal constitution of the Congregational Establishment. Such an act immediately followed the presentation of the report by the committee, whom the Saybrook convention, in accordance with the Court's previous command, sent to the Assembly. Having examined the Platform, the Legislature declared its strong approval of such a happy agreement, and in October, 1708, enacted that --

all the Churches within this government that are, and shall be thus united in doctrine, worship and discipline, be, and for the future shall be, owned and acknowledged, established by law:

Provided always that nothing herein shall be intended or construed to hinder or prevent any society or church that is or shall be allowed by the laws of this government, who soberly differ or dissent from the united churches hereby established, from exercising worship and discipline in their own way, and according to their conscience.

The purport of this proviso was to safeguard churches which had been approved according to the standards formerly set up by the Court, and also to prevent the Act of Establishment from seeming to contradict a |Toleration Act for sober dissenters| from the colony church that had been passed at the preceding May session. Out of this proviso grew a misunderstanding in the Norwich church, which happens also to furnish a typical illustration of the difficulties sometimes encountered in trying to collect a minister's salary.

When Mr. Woodward, pastor of the Norwich church, read the act establishing the Saybrook Platform, he omitted the proviso. The Norwich deputies, who had been present at the passage of the act, immediately informed the people of the provision which the Court had made for the continuance of those churches of which it had previously approved and which might be reluctant to adopt the stricter terms of the new system, at least until their value had been demonstrated. For this behavior, the deputies were censured by the pastor and by the majority of the church, who sided with him. Thereupon, the minority withdrew and for three months worshiped apart. Then the breach was healed, though seeds of discord remained. By 1714, six years later, they had germinated and had attained such development that it was very difficult to collect the minister's salary. In Norwich, as elsewhere, there had formerly been a custom of collecting the ministerial rates together with those of the county. This custom had arisen because of difficulty in collecting the former, and in 1708 this practice was legalized, provided that in each case the minister made formal application to have his rates thus collected. In the year 1714 and the following year the General Court was obliged to issue a special order commanding the town of Norwich to fulfill its agreement with their minister and to pay his salary in full. The second year, the Court added the injunction that the money should be collected by the constables. But at the session following the order, the Norwich deputies informed the Court that, owing to differences existing among their townsmen, they had not seen fit to urge its commands upon their people. Upon learning that Mr. Woodward's family were actually suffering, the Court appointed a date, and ordered the Norwich constables to produce at the time set a receipt, signed by Mr. Woodward, and showing that his salary had been paid in full. If the receipt was not forthcoming at the appointed time, the secretary of the colony was empowered to issue, upon application, a warrant to distrain all or any unpaid portion of the minister's salary from the constables, and, also, any additional costs. This legislation seems to have had due effect, though feeling ran so high that, in the following year, it was decided to divide the church. When the two parishes were formed, Mr. Woodward retired, and the life of the divided church was continued under new ministers.

From the adoption of the Saybrook Platform, the Connecticut churches were for many years preeminently Presbyterian in character. The terms Congregational and Presbyterian were often used interchangeably. As late as 1799, the Hartford North Association, speaking of the Connecticut churches, declared them |to contain the essentials of the Church of Scotland or Presbyterian Church in America.| The General Association in 1805 affirmed that |The Saybrook Platform is the constitution of the Presbyterian Church in Connecticut.|[b] Whether called by the one name or the other, Presbyterianized Congregationalism was the firmly established state religion, for under the Saybrook system the local independence of the churches was largely sacrificed. The system further exalted the eldership and the pastoral power. It replaced the sympathetic help and advisory assistance of neighboring churches by organized associations and by the authority of councils.

In the new system the ecclesiastical machinery which, at first, brought peace and order, soon developed into a barren autonomy and gave rise to rigid formalism in religion, with its consequent baneful results upon the spiritual and moral character of the people. The Established Church had attained the height of its security and power, with exclusive privileges conferred by the legislature. That body had turned over to the |government within a government| the whole control of the church and of the religious life of the colony, and had endowed it with ecclesiastical councils which rapidly developed into ecclesiastical courts.

|There was no formal coercive power; but the public provision for the minister's support, and the withdrawal of it from recalcitrant members formed a coercive power of no mean efficiency.|

FOOTNOTES:

[a] The charter for the college, together with an annual grant of three hundred dollars, was granted in 1701. None but ministers were to be trustees.

[b] The Hartford North Association in 1799 gave |information to all whom it may concern that the Constitution of the Churches in the State of Connecticut, founded on the common usage and confession of faith, Heads of Agreement, Articles of discipline adopted at the earliest period of the settlement of the State, is not Congregational, but contains the essentials of the Church of Scotland, or Presbyterian Church in America, particularly, as it gives a decisive power to Ecclesiastical Councils and a Consociation consisting of Ministers and Messengers, or lay representatives, from the churches, is possessed of substantially the same authority as a Presbytery.| The fifteen ministers at this meeting of the Hartford North Association declared that there were in the state not more than ten or twelve Congregational churches, and that the majority were not, and never had been, constituted according to the Cambridge Platform, though they might, |loosely and vaguely, though improperly,| be |termed Congregational Churches.| -- See MS. Records. Also G. L. Walker, First Church in Hartford, p.358.

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