John Ireland.

A second solemn appeal to the church : containing remarks and strictures on the late violent proceedings of a pretended ecclesiastical court against the author online

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is the right of the majority to administer the government according
to their will.

In defending their course, the Tabernacle Church appeal to
"the inalienable rights of majorities." The conference also say
Jn their vote, "whereas, it is an admitted principle that in the
action of Congregational Churches laid down in the New Testa-
ment, and in the records and symbols of our ciiurches, that majorities
govern : and, whereas, we find no accredited precedents in the
usages of the church to the contrary, and do not feel willing to in-
stitute one, — therefore resolved, that the claim of our brethren to
be the late Howard Street Church ought not to be allowed, and it
is not allowed." We are happy to learn that all attempts, by the
pastors of churches, to exercise or estabhsh a power of veto, or of
suspension, by the pastor, of the acts of majorities in the church,
are not accredited precedents.

We are of the same opinion. We not only freely admit, but
decidedly maintain, that it is a fundamental principle of our system
that the majority shall govern. But all who attempt to defend the
b



34

proceedings in question by this principle, err in both the particulars
above specified. In the first place, they do j but partially appre-
hend the principle to which they appeal, and in the second place,
they apply it out of its sphere.

Although the power of government undeniably resides in the ma-
jority, yet they can exercise that power only within given limits,
and in accordance with certain fixed principles.

These principles and limits are estabHshed sometimes by the
nature of things, and the great law of natural right, at other times
by the fundamental principles of our ecclesiastical system; at others,
by express authority of the word of God, and again, by special
legislation. Indeed, it is admitted in all equitable governments,
that the supreme ruling power, whether a monarch, an aristocracy,
or a democratic majority, ought not to have arbitrary or unlimited
authority in government, but to be limited within a fixed and defi-
nite sphere. The inhabitants of England have well-defined indi-
vidual rights, which neither kings, lords, nor commons, nor all
combined, are allowed to touch. So. too, they have equally in-
violable civil, social, and religious rights. The constitution of
this nation, and those of the particular states, set forth bills of in-
dividual, civil, social, and religious rights, which no majority can
abrogate. Moreover, the legislation of all the states is, by the
national constitution, stringently restrained within definite limits.
For example, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus cannot be
suspended except in cases of rebellion or invasion. No bill of
attainder, or ex post facto law, can be passed. The freedom of
the press and of debate cannot be taken away. The right to bear
arms, to assemble for discussion, or religious worship, and to pe-
tition, is inviolable. No title of nobihty can be granted. No law
impairing the obligation of contracts can be passed. Within these
and similar limits, some established on the ground of natural right,
others by positive legislation, majorities are obliged to act in all
other states. Within definite limits, then, and in accordance with
certain fixed principles, majorities rule. They would become the
very worst of despots if it were not so. The difiicult problem in
democratic governments is, not to defend the rights of majorities,
but of minorities and of individuals. The strong are not in danger
but the weak. Hence, if tvhile all free civil systems defend indi-
vidual rights and those of minorities, with sedulous care, Congre-
gationahsm leaves them without defence, a Congregational church
is the worst of despotism. If, while civil systems will not allow
a law to be passed, even by a unanimous vote, impairing the va-
lidity of contracts, Congregationalism gives to a mere majority the
right of utterly dissolving the most solemn and affecting covenant



35

ever framed in the universe, it would be a system deserving of the
highest and most unmitigated execration. But it is not so. Noth-
ing is more notorious, and more universally admitted by our
churches, and all our standard writers, than that the power of ma-
jorities in Congregational churches is Umited, always by natural
right, the word of God, the fundamental principles of our polity,
and often by special legislation, in each church for itself. Illustra-
tions of the truth of these remarks will occur at once, to every
thoughtful mind.

No majority has a right to expel a member from the church,
who has been guilty of no offence — nor to expel any one without
trial, or an opportunity of defence. No majority of a church has
a right to violate their covenant with God. No majority has a
right to promulgate infidel principles, nor in short, to violate any
principle of that universal law of right, by which even the Judge
of all the earth admits himself to be bound, and in the universal
observance of which in his own judgment his highest glory lies.
This truth is well expressed in a manual of church discipline re-
cently published, to which we refer at this time because the origi-
nator and advocate of the new doctrines which we are considering,
was one of the sub-committee by whom it was drawn up, " A
church," say that committee, " is not a simple unrestricted de-
mocracy ; inasmuch as it is subject to the authority of its king
and sovereign, who has given laws which must regulate and con-
trol the acts of the brotherhood." Nothing can be more true than
this. And if this is so, then there are certain things which not
only no majority, but not even the whole church, although by a
unanimous vote, has any power or right to do.

And now in all solemnity we ask, when or where has the king
and sovereing of the church, given even to a whole church, al-
though acting unanimously, a right so to dissolve a solemn mutual
covenant to watch over one another as Christian brethren, a cov-
enant assumed before the universe, with this most solemn and
affecting pledge," I set my seal to a full determination that in life
and death, I will be faithful to this covenant. This people is my
people, and this God is my God. Thus I promise and declare,"
so to dissolve such a covenant that not one member of that church
shall be any longer in covenant with another, or with any other
church to which he can say, this is my people and this is my
home ?

Much more earnestly do we ask, when and where has the
great Lawgiver and Head of the church given the right to a meer
majority of the brethren who happen to be at a particular meeting
of the church, to declare this covenant dissolved throughout the



S6

whole church, so that not one brother or sister is any longer in
covenant with another, and that too whilst members are protesting
against the act as a violation of their most sacred and cherished
rights ?

Will it be said in reply to this, we cannot admit the principle
that a minority can veto the act of a majority? We reply, it is
not the minority which in such cases vetoes the act, but its own
intrinsic unlawfulness. It is at war with the great laws of truth
and righteousness, established by the King and Head of the church
and His authority pronounces it invalid.

Indeed, it seems to us wonderful that any one should suppose
that it is an essential part of Congregationalism, that the action of
majorities should always be held valid — and that the Essex South
Conference could find no accredited precedents in the usages of
the churches to the contrary.

What is our system of ex-parte councils but a diliberate, design-
ed, systematic check upon the abuse of the power of majorities?
So Mather in his Ratio states the case, among our earliest usages
and precedent..

Upham also says, that one great object of Congregationalism is
to preserve every individual in the full possession of his rehgious
rights, and that ex-parte councils were designed to defend them,
" by checking the violent and unjust proceedures which so often
characterise a dominant party." Therefore he calls them "sort of
dey-stone to the system, which binds and consohdates the arch of
the fabric, and gives it strength."

Punchard also says, that these councils "furnish an eflectual
check to the exertion of arbhrary power on the part of a majority
of a church."

The very genius'of our system, therefore, requires that the ac-
tion of the majority in the present case he declared invalid, as con-
trary to the laws of equity and of God. Even if such were not
the fact, it would be invalid because at war with the most firmly
established principles and accredited usages of the Congregational
system. We have shown that nothing can be more explicit, noth-
ing more universally recognized, than the principle laid down in
the Cambridge Platform, " the church cannot make a member no
member, but by excommunication." What can be more directly
at war with this than to make the members of a whole church, no
members, by the vote of a majority, or indeed by any vote to all ?

7. But even if it were possible to admit the idea that a bare
majority could disband the church against the wishes and protest
of a minority, still in this case the facts are such as to show that it
has not been regularly and properly done. Much weight has been



S7

attached to the fact that a council advised the dissohition. But in
reply to this it should be said, that the question was never properly
brought before a council. There was no vote of the church to
submit such a question to a council. No one even pretends that
such was the fact when the church decided to call the council.
They voted to call a council solely for the dismission of their pas-
tor, Rev. Mr. Mann,* and appointed a committee to prepare and
send out the letters missive. That commiite, unauthorised by the
church, and on their own responsibility solely, inserted the clause,
"and to advise them on other difficulties." The church, there
fore, did not call the council to advise on this matter, and no op-
position was made to calling the particular council which met, be-
cause it was supposed that they would act solely with reference to
the dismission of the pastor. Of this the council were informed,
It was therefore out of order for them to recommend a dissolution
of the church, and their advice ought to have no weight.

8. Moreover, even if the act of the majority were not invalid
on these grounds, it is in this case, on the ground that it is at war
with a limitation imposed by the special legislation of the church
itself on the power of the majority, and with the mode prescribed
for calhng such meetings of the church. Fourteen rules and regu-
lations had been established by the Howard Street Church. These
relate to the form of government, mode of disicipline, admission,
and dismission of members, the times of church meetings, the ad-
ministration of the Lord's supper, the observance of monthly con-
certs of prayer, and other similar topics. Of these rules the
eleventh as follows, " No alteration shall be made in any of the
foregoing rules, unless at a regular meeting for business, it having
been proposed in writing one week previously^ and ttoo thirds of
the members present voting for it.'" Now on this we remark that,
inasmuch as the question of the utter dissolution of the church is
the most important question that can be raised, if the church for-
bade altering even a regulation as to the time of the Lord's supper
or observing a monthly concert, except by a vote of two thirds,
and after a week's written notice, much more did they forbid the
dissolution of the church by the votes of a mere majority, and
without any such written notice, or any public notice at all. More-
over, by dissolving the church, the rules as to the observance of
the Lord's supper, of church meetings, of monthly concerts, and
of all other services, and every other rule, would be virtually re-
pealed. If then that cannot be done indirectly which the law for-
bids to be done directly, surely a vote to dissolve the church, pas-
sed by merely a small and accidental majority, and without any
previous written notice at all, is on every principle, both of law

*Note. 11.



38

and equity, null and void. Yet the legal notice was never given,
nor did two thirds at last vote for the dissolution.

This consideration is of itself absolutely decisive. It is abun-
dantly sufficient to settle the case. If we had no other ground of
declaring the disbanding vote null and void, this would be all that
we need. Similar principles are contained in our civil constitu-
tions, the fundamental principles of which cannot be changed by
mere majorities.

But we do not desire to fix the mind on this alone. As the
general question is now up, we desire that it may be settled in ac-
cordance with the great general principles of our system, and on
grounds of eternal right. We desire to re-echo the truth that a
majority has no right to violate the fundamental principles of our
ecclesiastical polity, or to contravene the eternal laws of natural
equity. They have no right to violate a covenant of God, or
with man. It would be, as we have before said, no violation of
covenant if all the members were to pass in an orderly way into
fellowship with other churches till none remain. In this case the
church would become extinct, but no covenant would be broken.
Nor would this contravene our ecclesiastical polity. The church
would not thus make a member no member. So also two churches
may^be united, if it is so done that no one of either is thrown out
upon the world, as a member of no church. But in no case is it
lawful to disregard the great principle that the church cannot make
a member no member, except by excommunication.

If it should be said that the necessity of observing these princi-
ples may involve great inconvenience, and may prevent the disso-
lution of churches when it is desirable, we reply, it may cause
great inconvenience to an upright man who has sworn to his own
hurt, not to change, yet the pen of mspiration has given it as one
of the decisive tests of a citizen of the kingdom of God, that when
he has thus sworn even to his own hurt, he will not change. And
shall a whole church swear to watch over each other, till they are
safely in another church, and then a mere majority, to avoid in-
convenience or any other alleged evils, change from what they have
sworn, declare that all obligations to watch over each other are at
an end, and against remonstrances and protestations, cast out their
brethren into the world with none to watch over them .'' The mu-
tual covenant of the church is one of the most solem engagements
in the universe. Doubtless God so regards it. Shall it be trifled
with ? And shall a church weigh considerations of convenience
or expediency against the solemn demands of right and principle ?

Not only is the principle of the right of a majority to govern,
partially and incorrectly apprehended, as we have shown, but it is



39

applied out of its proper sphere. The right to govern implies the
existence of a community to be governed, and its proper sphere is
in the government of that community. But the dissolution of a
church is not an act of church government, but of church destruc-
tion. It is an act that renders government impossible. It des-
troys alike majorities and minorities, and reduces what was once
a community to scattered, disorganized, and ungovernable frag-
ments.

Appeal has been made in defence of this mode of proceeding to
the rights of communities to revolutionize governments by the vote
of a majority. But the cases are totally unhke. No nation exists
by a covenant, like that which gives its being to a Congregational
church. And though a Congregational church is a democracy, yet
it acts under fixed divine principles : the principles of a covenant
revealed in the word of God, which it has no right to repudiate. —
Moreover, the right of revolution and disbanding are not the same.
No nation or people ever attempted so to disband itself as to des-
troy all political ties between citizen and citizen, and all right of
government, after appointing a committee to distribute its citizens,
by letters of commendation among other nations. No nation is
likely to claim the right to do it. They claim the right indeed to
change existing forms of government, but they remain organized
under one form till they pass under another ; and they so pass as
not to invalidate existing titles to possessions and property. But
on these new principles, under the pretence of governing, a majority
have a right of destroying both themselves and the minority. This
is not the right of government, but of suicide. It is the right of a
majority not only to destroy their own rights, but also to plunder
others of theirs.

After all, we cannot but wonder what can be the cause that so
much zeal is manifested in behalf of the right of a majority to dis-
band a church. If the disbanding of a church were some great
good, some glorious result, fcr which churches were ordained, we
could understand it. But what church, once organized, does not
naturally desire to live and bless the world till Christ shall come to
sit as judge of quick and dead. Why do we find nowhere in the
Bible any directions as to this mode of dissolving churches for
which so much zeal is manifested .'' Why do we find no such di-
rections in any earlier or later works on our church polity ? Is
not this a significant fact ? Does it not proclaim the truth that to
live and increase is the great end of a church, that its death is an
event to be deprecated as unspeakably mournful, and that no direc-
tions are given as to the newly-invented mode of self-destruction,
because it is not a thing even to be once thought of ? If, in the



40

inevitable providence of God, a church once formed must cease to
exist, let it be either by the act of God taking all its members to
heaven, or by so placing them under the care and watch of other
churches, that the church shall not cease to exist till they are all
safely located in a Christian home.

It is suggested by the Tabernacle Church, as a reason for not
granting the request of Brother Goss, that the Essex South Con-
ference had refused a seat to the delegates of the Howard Street
Church, on the ground that it had been dissolved by vote of a ma-
jority of the church. We have looked into their proceedings, and
find that such was the case. But this council does not perceive
that weight should be given to this suggestion. We cannot agree
that the orderly standing of a church, recognized as such by neigh-
bor churches in ecclesiastical council, should be impeached in this
way. The objects of these conferences are mutual improvement
and instruction, and union in prayer and action, in favor of weak
churches . "they expressly disclaim all interference in the rights
of particular churches, and they exercise no acts of authority or
discipline."* Attempt have been made to confer upon these
bodies consociational powers, but it has been fully ascertained that
no such change can be admitted into the ecclesiastical polity of
this state.

Such an attempt was made, and the proposals sent to all the
churches in 1705, which was repelled with great power of argu-
ment, and boldly and effectually rebuked by Rev. John Wise,
the admitted legal expounder of the Platform ;f and it would seem
that the present is a suitable time to reprint his tract on that subject.
We extract a sentence or two : "This attempt is in defiance of
our constitution, and strikes at the root of our government ; for
our Platform denies the classical state of the churches. It sets at
naught the 15th and 16tb chapters for convening councils for the
service of our churches, and signs the condemnation of a form of
government, settled by rules of equity, settled and established by
all the churches, and blessed by God through a long succession of
years. I shall, for my own part, with the jealous Laocoon, enter
a caution against taking down the sides of the city, and opening the
walls of our Zion, and letting in this Trojan Horse." The scheme
was rejected. Dr. Cotton Mather says, "There were some very
considerable persons among the ministers, as well as the brethren,
who thought the Uberties of particular churches to be in danger of
being limited and infringed by its adoption."

In 1315 another and more strenuous attempt was made to es-
tablish consociationism in this way, and it was everywhere opposed
by the laity, and by many distinguished clergymen — most espec-

*Up. Rat. Disc. 237, &c. f'Chmchea' Expose Quarreld."



41

ially by Rev. Doctors Spring and Emmons. Dr. Spring pub-
lished a tract on the occasion, in which he says, "it is not author-
ized by reason or revelation ; it is not friendly to the liberty and
rights of conscience and exceeds the plan of the Feathers by
placing the churches under the care of standing councils." Dr.
Emmons contended that it tended to foster feelings of pride,
place, and power, to introduce a hierarchy, as in the early ages
of the church, to create a jealousy of the clergy, and to destroy
that personal influence so necessary to their usefulness. The
failure on this occasion was so decisive, that we have no reason to
expect another attempt of the kind.

The discipline of the Platform, which has stood against these
and some other minor attempts now for two hundred years, is very
plain and clear. An assembly of Christians claims to be a Con-
gregational church, and sends its pastor and delegates to the con-
ference. The conference question the claim. Here, by consent
of parties a mutual council between the conference and the ques-
tionable church can be called ;* but if none such is agreed on, the
way to settle the matter, by our Platform, is perfectly plain.

One of the churches acts as a churchy and deals with the church
called in question, as does a brother with an offending brother. It
may advise them to reorganize. If they do not observe the advice
a charge or complaint is made to another church, and after notice
and action, and refusal, these two churches call a council to advise
and act on the subject. If the church complained against persists
or is contumacious, sentence of non-communion is regularly pro-
no unced.f

But this conference postponed the Platform, and wholly disre-
garding its provisions, made a summary disposition of the claim of
the pastors and delegates, and put the sentence of non-comm union
immediately into effect. This is what is called coming to ajresult
per saltum — leaping over the constituted forms of trial, and ump-
ing to the conclusion. This is not Congregationalism, and it is
equally plain that these conferences cannot hear and decide ecclas-
tical cases, or take jurisdiction of them, with any proper regard to
the principles on which they are formed or acknowledged by our
order ; and if they become organized as judicial bodies, they must
necessarily be consociational — bodies which, it is quite certain,
will not be tolerated in Massachusetts .

But far worse than consciationism, in the opinion of the coun-
cil, is a collateral, summary jurisdiction, which disregards the pro-

* The council has been informed that such a council was oflfered on the part of the
church, but it was not accepted.

t Punch. 116 ; Mat. c. 15 ; Math. Rat. Dis. 172 ; Up. Rat. Dis. 206.
6



42

visions of the Platform, and if not final, nevertheless disparages
character in an unauthorized manner, and creates prejudices un-
favorable to fair and impartial trials in a congregational way. The
council, therefore, cannot see, in the proceedings of the Confer-
ence, referred to in the reply of the Tabernacle Church to the re-
quest of Brother Goss, any good reason for withholding letters
testimonial and of dismission.

Whether a Congregational qhurch shall be cherished, improved,
aided by advice, and deah with according to the Platform, or be-
come extinct and annihilated, are questions of interest and magni-
tude to all its members, as well as to neighbor churches, and to all
who love zion. When a church are already connected with a re-
ligious society and have a house of worship, and are sufficiently
numerous and of sufficientabihty to sustain the worship, — it would
seem that absolute necessity alone could induce the members to
abandon the worship and throw up their covenant. In other days
instead of compliance, their would have been " resistance unto
blood." The only definite reason which we have seen assigned
for the advice given to the Howard Street Chnrch to break up,



Online LibraryJohn IrelandA second solemn appeal to the church : containing remarks and strictures on the late violent proceedings of a pretended ecclesiastical court against the author → online text (page 27 of 51)