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councils in all ages, and without the express consent of the parties; and, in defiance of our state constitution and republican principles, is declared to be the legal and competent tribunal for the following solemn purposes :— to hear and decide upon any complaint and allegation touching ministerial character against any minister belonging to it; to acquit or find guilty, to advise, maintain, or DEPOSE, as the case may require. Then comes the quintessence of ecclesiastical despotism. It is to be understood, however, that any consociation may provide, upon principles and for reasons distinctly to be made known to them, for cases in which it may not be expedient for all the members to be concerned; as also for cases, in which it may be proper for others not of the body, to be admitted to sit in the council. Now, what are the true and only purposes of this formal and technical rule, when reduced to plain English ? Simply these. The consociation is, to all future time, made by a fiction the mutual choice of both parties; but through fear that heresy might even infect the consociation itself, it is provided, that the consociation may exclude any member at pleasure from any trial, and admit others not members of the particular consociation to sit therein. That is, it is permitted to each consociation in all cases to pack a jury, provided it be for the justifiable purpose of deposing an heretical minister. There was, indeed, a right of appeal to two or more neighbouring consociations, except for private church members; they were to be condemned without appeal. Such is a bare synopsis of this proposed plan of ecclesiastical order.
Now what is proved by the history of this report? First, that the committee who drew it up consisted of the ablest men in the denomination. Secondly, that they approved their own plan, and wished it carried into execution. Thirdly, that the Association so far approved of its scope, design, principles, and objects, as to submit it to the associations in their connexion. And, fourthly, that the new plan of ecclesiastical order contained all the worst features of the Connecticut system of consociations. It is indeed astonishing, that Dr. Woods could have had the folly to believe, that a people, who had so long enjoyed the sweets of religious liberty, would voluntarily adopt a system, by which that liberty would be for ever sacrificed. But that most of the orthodox ministers who were assembled in that Association should have fallen into the same error, does indeed surpass belief. It therefore requires this minute and authentic recapitulation of the facts to enable it to find believers at a period of fifteen years after its perpetration.
And how was this plan of ecclesiastical order received by the community ? With marked disapprobation. It produced nearly as much talk and excitement throughout the Commonwealth, as the recent revolutions in Europe are now producing among our free citizens. Its adoption was opposed by all classes of society; and especially by some distinguished individuals of orthodox sentiments. Among others, one
of the founders of your Seminary, the Rev. Dr. Spring of Newburyport, attacked the plan with great power and success. He declares in his pamphlet, that “the plan of ecclesiastical order is not authorized by reason or revelation;" that it is not a friendly to the liberty and rights of conscience ;” that it " will invest clergymen especially with more influence over their churches than they ought to possess ;” that “it is an infringement of the rights of distinct branches of the church and of individual brethren ;” that “it exceeds the plan of the Fathers very far indeed, by placing the communion of churches under the care and management of standing councils or consociations; and by making all ministers in the connexion amenable directly to the consociation, instead of their own church and occasional councils; ” and “ that, if it succeed, it will introduce a revolution amid our churches." " On the whole,” says the Doctor, “we sincerely think, that the genius and habits of the good people of this State are so averse to arbitrary and aristocratic government or domination, that the measures contemplated will not meet that share of public approbation which promises utility to Zion.” Is not this orthodox authority sufficient to convince you that Dr. Channing uttered the truth and nothing but the truth, when he published the following sentence, which you have so often quoted and ridiculed ? “ It is a melancholy fact, that our long established congregational form of church government is menaced, and tribunals unknown to our churches, and unknown, as we believe, to the Scriptures, are to be introduced; and introduced for the very purpose, that the supposed errors and mistakes of ministers and private Christians may be tried and punished as heresies, that is, as crimes.” The writings of Dr. Spring and Dr. Channing did much to awaken public attention to the threatened danger. But a publication of the Hon. John Lowell produced a much greater effect; because it gave a full view of the enormous evils to be inflicted on the churches by the new plan of ecclesiastical order; and because it was published in several different parts of the Commonwealth, and in this manner very generally circulated through the community. So that this wonderful child of many fathers barely breathed to expire under the maledictions of a free Christian people. It was so detested by the intelligent citizens of Massachusetts, that it was strangled in its very birth. And its fond parents found but few to sympathize with them under its early and sudden destruction.
I presume, Sir, you are now ready to acknowledge, that an attempt was made by the leaders of the orthodox party in eighteen hundred and fifteen, to change the government of our congregational churches, and introduce tribunals hitherto unknown to them, so that the errors and mistakes of ministers and Christians might be tried and punished as heresies, that is, as crimes. And you will further admit, that the plan of ecclesiastical order proposed by the great and learned orthodox committee, is subversive of religious liberty, free inquiry, and the principles of congregationalism. In fact, you have already admitted this in your Letter on Religious Liberty. Now, Sir, permit me to ask you a few friendly questions. In your treatment of Dr. Channing on this particular point, have you not been guilty of singular unfairness ? Just review the circumstances of the case. An attempt was made by the leaders of the orthodox party, in eighteen hundred and fifteen, to change the ecclesiastical order of our congregational churches. At the very time, Dr. Channing wrote an able article to prevent its success. Distinguished men of orthodox sentiments entertained similar views of the design, and also warned the community to guard against the threatened danger. By such noble exertions, a great excitement was produced throughout the Commonwealth, and the nefarious attempt was blown to perdition. After fifteen years, Dr. Channing collects most of his writings into a large volume ; and among other articles, republishes the abovementioned essay, taking special care to date it, eighteen hundred and fifteen. In that essay, he simply asserts what every body knew to be literally true at the time of publication. As soon as this volume is well before the public, with much blustering you boldly declare, that this assertion of Dr. Channing is not true. You bring forward the quotation several times, and ridicule the idea of any such attempt on the part of the orthodox. You treat an opinion of fifteen years' standing, which was an undisputed truth at the time of its publication, as the sentiment of the present year. Is not this most singular unfairness? And what excuse can you offer for such an outrage upon the integrity of Dr. Channing, and the understanding of the community ? Will you aver, that you were wholly ignorant of the fact of this attempt of the General Association ? — that you were not at that time a citizen of this Commonwealth ? - and that you had never read the publications of that period ? Such a confession would be one kind of apology, but not such an one as will be satisfactory to intelligent men. For when the very integrity of such a man was concerned, had you any right to make such positive assertions without one word of inquiry as to their truth ? And how can you reconcile such ignorance with your standing, your profession, your pretended respect for the sincerity and greatness of Dr. Channing? How can you assert, that you are more or less acquainted with all, against whom his charges are specially directed, and never have asked your respected friend and colleague, whether there was any foundation for the declaration of Dr. Channing ? But on the other hand, if you were not ignorant of the fact, what could be your motive for charging Dr. Channing with uttering what was not true? Did you rely upon the strong hold of the weak men of your party ? — upon the credulity of the ignorant and bigoted, and their firm resolution never to read any reply which might be made to your assertions ? Did you expect the orthodox to adopt this course of reasoning, in imitation of some of your leaders ? "Dr. Channing made an assertion as to the attempted measures of the leaders of our denomination. Mr. Stuart solemnly charges him with stating what is not true. Mr. Stuart must know the truth, because he declares he is acquainted with all the orthodox against whom Dr. Channing's remarks are directed. We will not, therefore, read any reply which may be made to his solemn assertions ; for the answer must come from an unitarian, or from an orthodox man who will not acknowledge the infallibility of our leaders; and such men are unworthy of belief because they must be either unitarians, or worse than unitarians. Í have no doubt this course of reasoning will be substantially adopted by numbers. But, Sir, you may rest assured, that you have mistaken the orthodox community, if you expect them all to pursue such a course. No; those who are independent will sift this subject to the bottom, and they will come to the conclusion, that in this particular at least, you have manifested either great ignorance, or aggravated wickedness. And I therefore ask, if you are not bound by every obligation, human and divine, either to make a public acknowledgment of your ignorance of this fact, or to reconcile your knowledge of it with your printed remarks ; either to retract your charges of falsehood against Dr. Channing, or to prove that his statement was not true when first published ?
3. Ecclesiastical Councils. Look at the proceedings of orthodox ecclesiastical councils. When assembled for specified purposes they have converted themselves into ecclesiastical courts, and endeavoured to try and punish their ministerial brethren for their honest sentiments. In so doing, they have not only trampled on the rights of their fellow Christians, but have openly violated principles of free inquiry, religious liberty, and congregationalism. I will mention three different classes of violations. And, first, take those cases, in which councils have been invited to aid in the ordination of congregational ministers. In 1813 a council was invited by the church and society in Greenfield, to assist in the ordination of their pastor elect. Among this number was the Rev. Mr. Willard of Deerfield. A large minority were unwilling to proceed to the business for which they had been convened, because they could do nothing which should be considered an act of fellowship with Mr. Willard. They could not sit in council with this gentleman, because he would not submit to be catechized by them as to his religious opinions; and because they presumed he would not assent to all the articles of their human formulary of faith. After discussing this question for nearly two days, and increasing the expenses of the society to a large amount, they advised the church and congregation to call another council; and then dissolved their meeting. Now did not these ministers know that Mr. Willard was to be on the council ? Were they invited to pass a censure on his ministerial character? Were they not at perfect liberty to remain at home, if they
could not peaceably assist the church in the ordination ? Here then is one instance in which an orthodox council neglected the duties for which they had been assembled, insulted those by whose invitation they had been convened, and endeavoured to injure a brother minister for a fearless maintenance of his congregational rights. In 1821, the congregational society in Wareham invited a council to aid them in ordaining a pastor elect. Among the number was the Rev. Mr. Goodwin of Sandwich. It was known that he had embraced unitarian sentiments. Accordingly some measure must be devised for excluding him from the council. A pretence was therefore made by certain orthodox leaders, that he was not the pastor of a regularly organized church; when the Supreme Court had decided, that the church over which he was settled, was the first congregational church in Sandwich. One of the orthodox members however acknowledged, that this circumstance would not have been mentioned, had his religious opinions been Calvinistic. Here then is another instance in which the peaceable orthodox ministers of this state undertook to disregard the rights of congregational churches, and pass sentence of condemnation on ministerial brethren for their honest opinions. More cases of the same character might be mentioned, but these are sufficient for my present purpose.
Now is not this converting orthodox councils into ecclesiastical courts, and punishing brethren for their supposed errors and mistakes? Is not this conduct subversive of congregational rights ? One of the most sacred rights of a congregational church is this ; that each church has full power to manage all its own concerns. It may ordain a minister over itself without any aid froin sister churches. Several ministers were so ordained in the early history of our Commonwealth. When a church invites the assistance of other churches, it does not ask them to dictate,- to decide on the ministerial character of other invited guests; no, it merely requests them to assist in the ordination. If they cannot do this, their presence is never desired. And a majority have no more right to exclude a minority, than the minority have to exclude the majority. All this is usurpation. And what would you say, should a unitarian majority of an ordaining council exclude the orthodox minority ? Would you not pronounce such conduct intolerant, abusive, unchristian! And is it any the less intolerant, any the less abusive, any the less unchristian, when perpetrated by an orthodox majority ?
Secondly, take those cases in which ecclesiastical councils have endeavoured to injure the ininisterial character of those preachers who have renounced orthodoxy. The proceedings against the Rev. Mr. Field furnish us with a fair specimen of this class of orthodox usurpations. The circumstances are briefly these. The Rev. Mr. Field was led, by a most patient and prayerful study of the Scriptures, to depart from the human explanations of certain orthodox doctrines. He freely stated his new views to his ministerial brethren, and earnestly desired them