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On the Proper Time for the Admission of Recent Converts

to the Full Communion of the Church[1]

[Princeton Review, vol. 5, no.3, July, 1833.]

"ONE hundred and eighty have already united with the Second Church, and many have gone to other churches; while numbers have so much reverence for the GOOD OLD WAY, that they prefer testing the genuineness of their hope by living a few months in disobedience to Christ, before they venture upon a public profession!"

The above remarks are taken from "A narrative of the state of religion in the Second Presbyterian Church in Rochester, &c." and they are quoted for the sake of calling the attention of our readers to a subject intimately connected with revivals of religion, viz. the proper time for the admission of young converts to the communion of the Church of Christ.

In glancing over the accounts of revivals in various parts of our country, we have been pained to notice many instances of a practice, which if persisted in and extended, we are persuaded will ultimately prove highly injurious to the estimation in which revivals are now held, and to the best interests of the Church.

In one instance, during the progress of a protracted meeting, fifty persons were admitted to the church, whose first serious impressions had been received since its commencement. In another, one hundred and one, in similar circumstances, were admitted within less than three weeks after supposed conversion. In another case, seventy-one, and in still another, more than eighty were admitted in similar circumstances. In another instance, a minister of the gospel, giving, under his own signature, an account of a protracted meeting which he aided in conducting, says, that forty-two, who professed to have experienced a change of heart during the meeting, were, on the fourth day of it, admitted to the church. Among this number was a young man, who four days before "was a deist"—who "denied the inspiration and authenticity of the Bible," and "despised the blood of the atonement," &c. And yet, he was invited to the Lord’s table, and actually partook of the elements, without even the formality of being admitted to the church by the usual profession of faith in Christ! And this too by a minister who was a stranger in the place!

Many other similar instances might be adduced; but these are sufficient to give a distinct exhibition of the practice to which we allude, and upon the evil tendencies of which we design to offer some remarks.

A brief historical sketch of the practice of the Church in regard to the admission of its members, may serve as a preparatory introduction to the subject before us. The practice of the apostles will hereafter be discussed: at present, therefore, we would merely remark, that the whole New Testament does not furnish an instance of their admitting a single individual, immediately on the profession of his faith in Christ, to any thing more than the rite of baptism. In the early church, the order of catechumens shows that delay was then customary for the sake of instructing the converts, before they were admitted to church membership. When this order was instituted is now uncertain, though it existed as early as the second century. As to the Roman Catholic Church, it has ever, as now, (we believe) admitted to its communion all who are willing to acknowledge the Pope, no matter what their moral characters. From the time of the Reformation, the churches of Germany, Hungary, France, Scotland, and generally the European Reformed and Lutheran churches, have been in the practice of admitting all, (when arrived at suitable age) who had been baptized in infancy, and had afterward passed through a regular course of preparatory catechetical instruction. The custom of the Waldenses, &c. we have not been able to ascertain. The English Episcopal Church admitted all who wished to be united with its members, without distinction. The Independents who first arose in England, and who were unknown as a distinct sect until the time of Queen Elizabeth, were the first to introduce the custom of admitting none to church membership, who on examination did not give evidence of having been regenerated in the Calvinistic acceptation of that term. The American Protestant churches generally have practically adopted the same rule, allowing the candidate a proper period of delay for self-examination, &c., in which he may both find, and give to others, suitable evidence of genuine conversion. In New England, especially, great caution has been exercised in most of the churches, to admit none who were not believed to have been truly converted. The church of Northampton, indeed, is a well known exception; and we are told, in reference to some of the glorious revivals of the early part of the last century, that it was "the opinion of Dr. Trumbull, that in many places the converts were received too soon into the communion of the Church."—(See American Quarterly Register, 1832, pp. 297.) But that, generally, the privileges of church were granted with the utmost caution, may be seen from the following account of a single church, which however was equally applicable to most of the New England churches at the time of which we are speaking: "When a person," says the narrative, "desired to join the church, he visited his minister, declaring how the Lord had been pleased to work his conversion; if the minister found the smallest ground of hope, he propounded him to the church, after which some of the brethren, with the minister, examined him again, and reported their opinion to the church. After this, all the congregation had public notice of his design, and he publicly declared to them the manner of his conversion. All this was done, to prevent the polluting of the ordinance by such as walk scandalously, and to prevent men and women from eating and drinking their own condemnation." Some of the first cases of the "immediate admission" of supposed converts occurred in Tennessee, about five or six years since. The professed object of this innovation, was, to prevent the Methodists from gathering into their communion, the fruits of Presbyterian revivals. The Methodist custom, however, is not to receive young converts at once to Church membership, but merely to their "classes" of probationers. To these "classes," they admit "all who evince a desire to flee from the wrath to come—to be saved from their sins, &c." and " after three months, if found deserving, they are admitted as proper members" of the church. The course adopted by many of our foreign missionaries, has been somewhat in accordance with the old plan of catechumens; for we find them admitting some of the supposed heathen converts, first to the rite of baptism, and then after a long period of probationary delay, to the Lord’s table.—(See Missionary reports, Ellis' journal, &c.) The same is true of the Indians in this country, among whom Eliot, the Mayhews, and Brainerd adopted the catechumen plan. It is to be observed here, that the praying Indians were not all members of the churches, but under that denomination were included all serious Indians who were inquirers or catechumens. Eliot had at one time fourteen towns of praying Indians, in all of which there were but two churches. And the aggregate number of praying Indians in New England in 1674, under the care of this missionary and others, was 3600, of whom only 300 or 400 were professors of religion. A far larger number of these Indians were baptized than were members of the church.

Such is a brief sketch of the practice of the Church as to the admission of its members. We regret that a deficiency of materials prevents us from rendering it more accurate and full.

In proceeding to the discussion of the subject before us, we shall first, endeavour to show the advantages of having, in general, a suitable period of probation between hopeful conversion and admission to church membership and secondly, shall examine some of the objections to such a practice, which are also the arguments in favour of "immediate admission."

I. We proceed then, as proposed, to state some reasons, why, as a general rule, the admission of supposed converts to the privileges of church membership, should be deferred for a season, until during a suitable period of probation, they shall have given satisfactory evidence of their conversion from sin to holiness. And,

1. We remark, that the proposed course is demanded by a regard to the best interests of the candidates themselves. In times of revival, especially, the strong and ardent feelings of the supposed convert are often such as to satisfy the subject of them that there is no room to doubt as to the certainty of his conversion, and the more so, as his views of the value of religion, and his desire of personal safety, incline him to hope that such may be the case. But emotions of this kind, afford no evidence of true conversion. Long observation shows conclusively that multitudes in analogous circumstances have been deceived, and, by making a premature profession of religion, have been confined in a state of lamentable self-deception, in which they have remained through life. If, then, in seasons of revival, all supposed converts are immediately admitted to the Church, many of them will probably be of this class. And these are they who will be found to be a dead weight upon the Church of Christ, paralyzing her energies, impeding her onward progress, and disgracing her fellowship in the eyes of the world. The promises addressed to Christians will be appropriated to themselves, simply on the ground of their being in the Church, while, for the same reason, the warnings addressed to the impenitent will fall unheeded on their ears; and thus they will slumber on in unbroken security, until roused to a sense of their condition by the approach of the king of terrors, perhaps only by the sound of the archangel’s trump. They will ever remain dead and withered branches, on the vine of the Saviour’s planting, disfiguring its beauty and diminishing its fruitfulness, and destined at last to be broken off and cast into the fire. Now if such be the prospect before the supposed (but self-deceived) convert, it were better that a mill-stone were hanged about his neck, and that he were cast into the depths of the sea, than that he should, by a premature union with the Church of Christ, place himself in a situation of all others the most unfavourable to a knowledge of his real character, and most unlikely to be the means of his conversion. Far better for him to remain nominally, as he is really, an unrenewed man, than to silence the-voice of conscience, and to elude, as it were, the arrows of the Almighty’s quiver, by marching with the ranks of God’s elect, while in fact he is not of them. In the one case, his true situation being constantly in his view, might be the means of leading him to reflection and ultimate conversion. In the other, the fact of his being nominally a child of God, would render his case comparatively hopeless. For this reason, then, it is advisable to delay the approach of supposed converts to the table of the Lord. If they are self-deceived, a brief delay might enable them to discern their true characters, and thus save them from eating, and drinking unworthily. If, on the contrary, they are in reality the children of God, still they themselves cannot be fully satisfied of the fact, unless some time shall have elapsed in which they may judge of their characters by the fruits of their lives. Conduct is the test of Christian character, the test pointed out by reason and the word of God; and to know this requires, in religion, as in other things, time for observation. A well grounded, self-satisfying hope, a hope sufficiently definite and clear to warrant a desire for admission to the Church, and a belief that there is some degree of proper preparation for that solemn duty, is not ordinarily attained without a longer or shorter time, in which self-examination and prayer shall form a prominent part of the duties of the young convert. And this will require, as a general rule, the delay of a proper period of probation.

Nor will this delay be necessarily unprofitable or injurious. There is perhaps no period in the life of the Christian, which, by proper care, may be rendered more profitable, than that which intervenes between conversion and admission to the church. The conscience is then peculiarly tender, the memory is remarkably susceptible of truth, and retentive of its impressions, and the heart is disposed to listen with humble docility to the instructions of the word, and to enter with eagerness upon the discharge of every duty enjoined. At no period, in short, is the character more susceptible of correct religious formation, than immediately after conversion. By proper care, the spark which has just been kindled may quickly be blown into a flame. Self-examination by the word of God may result in satisfying evidence of conversion, a high standard of Christian character may be enjoined and adopted, the principles which are to be the guides of life may become deeply fixed, and clear and accurate views may be attained of what is implied and what is required in a profession of Christ before men. Thus, while the converts are as carefully guarded from danger, as if they were within the visible fold of Christ; by instructions adapted to their peculiar wants, their graces may be constantly increasing, and they, in due time, may be prepared for the Church, with benefit to them selves, and with characters so tried and approved as to secure the unhesitating confidence of its members. But again, we remark,

2. That the proposed period of probation is demanded by a regard to the purity and prosperity of the Church. This department of our argument is intimately connected with that which has just been stated, and with one of the objections here after to be examined. Our remarks upon it in this place, will therefore be brief. It is well known, as we have just seen, that, ill times of revival especially, there are many "who run well for a season," "but by and bye are offended," many who "having no root in themselves," by and bye wither away. So has it been ever since revivals were known. "It appears plainly," says President Edwards, "to have been in the visible church of God, in times of great revival of religion, as it is with the fruit trees in the spring. There are a multitude of blossoms, all of which appear fair and beautiful, and there is a promising appearance of young fruit; but many of them are of short continuance, they soon fall off, and never come to maturity." This might almost have been predicted from the constitution of the human mind, an acquaintance with which might teach us, that the more powerful and rapid the progress of a work of grace in a community, the more certain the existence, and the more powerful the operation of sympathy and all the causes of self-deception. It might have been expected from the known agency of the great adversary of souls, who, at such seasons, is peculiarly active in deceiving the souls of men. It is confirmed by the testimony of facts, which sometimes compel us to weep over the numbers of those whose goodness is "like the morning cloud and the early dew." Let any one bid memory recall the cases of this kind which have come under his own observation. How many hopes would be found quenched in darkness, but a few days after they had been lighted up by self-deception! How many premature joys, dying away at the rapid approach of apostasy! How many, one day confident of their conversion, undeceived the next! Now suppose that all who indulge hopes like these, had been admitted at once to the fellowship of the saints. What must have been the result to the Church? Inevitably one of the two following: Either, like the church of Sardis, she would be replenished with members "having a name to live, while they are dead," with self-deceived hypocrites, who would cover her with shame in the eyes of the world; or else, she would continually be agitated and harassed by the exercise of stern discipline, while the wicked would continually reproach her for the apostasy of her professed members. Thus, instead of being the beauty and the glory of the earth, the daughter of Zion would be constantly clothed with sackcloth, while her Saviour would be wounded in the house of his friends.

Let it ever be remembered that the efficiency of the Church is to a great degree dependent upon her purity; that her great object should be to increase in purity as well as in numbers; and that whenever she aims to multiply the latter at the expense of the former, she is injuring the cause of her Redeemer, and treasuring up for herself bitter repentance and anguish. Let the members of a church be multiplied to any extent whatever, and "if it embrace a large amount of spurious religion, it will diffuse around it a feeble and uncertain light. Every such accessions is an accession of fresh weakness. Let the Church receive to her communion many who have deceived themselves with false hopes, and it will be strange if she does not find that her most formidable foes "are those of her own household." Hasty admissions may give a temporary addition of members; but if the "swelling list" be not soon reduced by necessary discipline, there is reason to fear that the character of revivals will be dishonoured in the estimation of Christians, and disgraced in the eyes of the world. A recent writer says, respecting the churches of New England, "There has been more anxiety that the Church should be purer as well as larger; and to this circumstance we attribute it, that while there has been a succession of powerful revivals, they have maintained their character, and been regarded as more and more desirable. Had all who have indulged the hope of having passed from death unto life in New England, during the last thirty years, and who appeared well to human view for one or two weeks, been admitted to the Church in that period, it is our deep conviction that revivals would ere this time have sunk into such discredit, that no sober, no rational man would desire their continuance. We do not believe our churches could have borne the shock for thirty years. They would have come down to the level of the world, and been the laughing-stock of men!"

In gratifying accordance with this view of the subject, is the testimony of some of the most distinguished and experienced living ministers of our country, the labours of many of whom have been remarkably honoured and abundantly blessed by the reviving influences of the Holy Spirit.

The Rev. Dr. Beecher, in alluding to this subject says, "The more powerful and rapid a work of grace in a community, the more imperious the necessity of caution, unless we would replenish the Church with hypocrites, to keep her agitated by discipline, or covered with shame by the neglect of it."

The Rev. Dr. Dana, in noticing some of the causes by which the interests of pure religion are injured, mentions as one of them, "the evil of precipitate admissions of supposed converts into the Church."

The Rev. Dr. Green speaks with astonishment and regret, of "the measure of admitting to the full communion of the Church, persons whose supposed conversion has happened but a day or two, or perhaps but a few hours before their admission." "I can scarcely conceive," he adds, "of a practice more evidently calculated than this, eventually to bring dishonour on religion, by filling the Church with unsound professors, who will ultimately become open apostates, or at best demonstrate that they never possessed a spark of piety."

The Rev. Dr. Griffin, speaking of eight different revivals which he has witnessed, says, that to guard them against a false profession, hopeful converts have been "kept back from a profession about three months."

The Rev. Dr. Hawes states it as his opinion, that, "It is a great error to admit converts to the Church before time has been allowed to try the sincerity of their hopes." "This," he adds, "is an error into which I was betrayed during the first revival among my people, and it has cost me bitter repentance. And yet none were admitted to the church under two months after they had indulged a hope. It is of great importance that young converts, immediately after conversion, should be collected into a class by themselves, and brought under the direct and frequent instruction of the pastor. And if they continued from four to six months in a course of judicious instruction, and then admitted to the Church, there is very little danger that they will afterwards fall away, or that they will not continue to shine as lights in the world till the end of life."

The Rev. Dr. M’Dowell, speaking of several revivals which had taken place in the church of which he was the pastor, says, "We have carefully guarded against a speedy admission to the privileges of the church. Seldom, in times of revival, have we admitted persons to the communion in less than six months after they first became serious, &c."

The Rev. Dr. M’Ilvaine, now bishop of Ohio, after speaking of the dangers of revivals, adds, "These remarks apply with more force to the dangerous practice of encouraging those who profess conversion to come forward, almost immediately, to the table of the Lord. The ambition of numbering the people, the desire of an exciting spectacle, may adopt this plan. Shallow views of religion and of human nature may approve it. Satan will subscribe to its wisdom in the signature of an angel of light. The winnowings of the last day will show that a large portion of such ingatherings was fit only to be cast into the fire, to be burned."

The Rev. Dr. Milledollar, speaking of those who profess to have a hope, says, "they are not unfrequently hurried into the communion of the Church, before they had time to acquire, either a competent knowledge of themselves, or of the person, offices, and benefit of Christ." And he warns ministers and ruling elders against the too early admission of such persons, unless they are willing "to run the risk of filling the Church with mere nominal professors, at the expense of diminishing its actual strength and purity."

The Rev. Dr. Neill, in noticing some things of an injurious tendency connected with revivals, mentions, "Hasty admissions to the communion of very young persons, or of those who have given but little proof of their knowledge of the Gospel, or of their having experienced a gracious change of heart." "A reasonable time of probation," he adds, "seems expedient, if not demanded by a proper regard for the persons admitted, and for the peace and purity of the Church."

The Rev. Dr. Proudfit says, "The great, shall I say fatal, error in the management of revivals, is the hasty admission of the subjects to the privileges of the Church, &c."

The Rev. Dr. Sprague says, "Where the custom prevails of admitting persons to the communion almost immediately after they are supposed to be converted, many must be received who are no better than the stony ground hearers. I know it is said in favour of this practice that it originated with the apostles; but I know too that that ease cannot be pleaded as a precedent for a similar course now, because the circumstances by which it was marked do not exist at the present day. Let the Church then, as she values her own purity and efficiency, beware of prematurely receiving those whom she considers the fruits of revivals to her communion. Not that she will be able, at any period, to make an exact separation between the chaff and the wheat; but it is a duty that she owes, not only to herself, but to her exalted Head, to make that separation as accurately as she can."

But to turn from the testimony of individuals to that of church judicatories. The Presbytery of Niagara gives, as one of the reasons of the comparative coldness and apathy of the churches under its care, the hasty admission of supposed converts to the Church. Its language is, "Another evil we have to regret, and under which the churches suffer, is the effect of too great precipitancy in times past, in some instances at least, in receiving members into the communion of our churches;" from admitting them "so soon as they begin to indulge a hope, without waiting to impart to them previous and preparatory knowledge and instruction."

At the late General Association of Connecticut, a resolution was adopted, which is as follows:

"Resolved, That, in the opinion of the General Association, the admission to membership in our churches of such persons as have become the subjects of hopeful conversion, during revivals, until they have had some time to give evidence in their lives that they have experienced a genuine work of grace upon their hearts, is greatly calculated to introduce evils into the churches by multiplying the number of unsound and inefficient members, and especially, in many cases, to bring lasting and even fatal injury to the persons themselves."[2]

Again, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church at their annual meeting in 1832, unanimously adopted the following resolution:

"Resolved, That the purity and prosperity of the Church, as well as the best interests of those immediately concerned, demand great circumspection in the admission of persons to church privileges; and that ordinarily it is deemed improper to receive persons immediately upon their indulging a hope of reconciliation with God, and especially in the case of the young, and of persons of previously immoral lives, and lax principles, and of those concerning whom little is known."

And again, in the pastoral letter of the same Assembly to the churches under their care, which was unanimously adopted, they say, "Let not apparent converts be hurried into the Church, and brought to the table of the Lord without a careful examination; nor ordinarily without a suitable period of probation, by which the reality of their religion may be better judged of than it can be by any sudden indications however plausible. Nothing is more directly calculated to injure ultimately the cause of God, and the credit of our holy religion, than urging or permitting individuals to make a public profession of religion as soon as they have experienced some serious impressions, and flatter themselves that they have been renewed in the temper of their minds. All experience shows that such persons often and speedily dishonour their profession, and not unfrequently be come open apostates, and sometimes avowed infidels. * * * * * To use all proper means to preserve the purity of the Church, and save religion from reproach, is a sacred duty, incumbent on all church officers; and it is a duty which, when faithfully performed, will to a great extent secure its object; the Church will rarely be disgraced by self-deceived hypocrites, and eventual apostates."

We have thus briefly traced the history of admission to the privileges of church membership; have considered the advantages which might be expected to result from the adoption of the general rule of admitting none who have not, during a suitable period of probation, given good evidence of hopeful piety; and have endeavoured to fortify the position embraced in our conclusion, by the opinions of some of the most wise and experienced ministers of our country, as well as of ecclesiastical bodies.

II. We now proceed to examine some objections to the course which has been recommended. Of these objections, which in themselves constitute the arguments for immediate admission, there are but two, so far as we have heard them, which have any force or plausibility. These we shall now examine.

1. The first is, that every duty is to be performed without the least delay; that joining the church is the duty of every hopeful convert, and therefore, that every such individual should immediately be admitted to church membership. Let us analyze this argument. It can have but two meanings. The first is, that whatever is a man’s immediate duty, is a man’s immediate duty. This is merely an identical proposition, the abstract truth of which, no one ever dreamed of denying. But before it can have the least force, in application to the case before us, it must assume the very point in debate, viz: that duty does require every one to join the church, immediately upon indulging the hope of conversion. The only remaining meaning which can be attached to the argument is, that whatever may at some future time become one’s duty, is now his duty; that whatever may hereafter, in different circumstances become obligatory, is obligatory at the present moment. Such a principle is too absurd for sober refutation. Let us look at the principle which it involves, in the light of a familiar illustration. It is the duty of every one who intends to enter the sacred ministry to attend to the study of theology. A. B. who is just commencing his collegiate studies, intends ultimately to enter the sacred ministry. Now, on the principle before us, whatever is duty at any time, is duty now. Therefore, it is the duty of A. B., immediately to relinquish his collegiate course, to enter at once upon his theological studies. But further, he intends at some future time, in obedience to the dictates of duty, to preach the gospel to his fellow men, and therefore he must give up both collegiate and theological studies, and at once commence preaching! Such reasoning would confound all the duties which arise from the constantly changing circumstances, and various periods of life, and if reduced to practice, would make life a very Babel of confusion. It is evident then, that unless the argument from the duty of the supposed convert assumes the very point in question, it has not the slightest force. The truth is, that as the duty of A. B. does not require him to enter upon each successive stage of study, &c. until he is prepared for so doing by application to those which precede, so the duty of the hopeful convert does not require that he should join the church of Christ, until he has clear and definite views of the nature of that duty, and of the doctrines, in which, by that step, he avows his belief; and until he not only has for himself, but gives to others, satisfactory evidence of having been born again. In reply to the objection that perhaps there may be some Christians, who, even through life never obtain satisfactory evidence of their own piety, we simply say, that those who neither have for themselves, nor give to others such evidence, have no right to the privileges of that church, one of whose fundamental requirements is, that the existence of faith should be demonstrated by its works.

But we are still told, that the command of Christ, "Do this in remembrance of me," is as truly binding at once, as the command to repent, believe, &c.; and therefore that the supposed convert is to evince the reality of his conversion by immediately obeying it, and at once uniting with the church. But repentance is a duty, the performance of which has no reference to our fellow men. Not so however with admission to the church; for these previous members are concerned as well as the applicant. This statement of the objection, therefore, entirely leaves out of view the duty of the convert to the church, and especially the duty of the church to herself, which is of far more importance than the supposed duty of a single individual. "Keep thyself pure," is the spirit of all the inspired injunctions to the church; and obedience to them demands that she do not admit to her communion any in whom she does not witness satisfactory evidence of true discipleship. But how is her opinion to be formed? "By their fruits shall ye know them," is the only test, which either common sense or inspiration authorize her to apply in forming an estimate of their characters. And though the applicant for admission may find, in his own experience, evidence of his conversion, which to himself is perfectly satisfactory, yet the church, in the discharge of the duty which she owes to herself, is bound, before admitting him, to require that the existence of a sound doctrinal faith, shall have been evinced by the fruits of holiness in the life. But perhaps it may still be claimed, that the supposed convert is fully convinced that it is his duty to make an immediate profession, and that, therefore, it must be the duty of the church to receive him. This, however, would make the greater duty give way to the less, and would subordinate the interests of the great body of the church to the wishes of a single individual. And more than this, it would neutralize, or rather completely nullify the discretionary power of the church in the admission of members. It would take away her power of examining the candidate, which is not only her right, but her imperative and solemn duty. It would overthrow, in short, every barrier which now guards her from pollution, and throw open her doors to every one who should assert his belief that he had been converted, no matter what might be his feelings, his doctrines, or his moral character! Who is ready to advocate or practice principles which tend to consequences like these?

Even if it could be shown, therefore, that it is the duty of the supposed convert to join the church immediately, still it is evident that the church ought not to hazard her purity and safety by admitting him to her bosom, without evidence of his piety satisfactory to herself. This must require a longer or shorter period of probation, for though conversion is instantaneous, yet the evidence of its reality must be gradually developed in a subsequent course of exercises and actions.

2. The second objection urged by the advocates of "immediate admission," against the plan which we have suggested, is that which they derive from apostolical example. In reply to this, we might repeat the remark already made, that the whole New Testament history does not furnish the slightest evidence that the apostles admitted to the Lord’s Supper any of the individuals so often adduced as instances of immediate admission, not the slightest evidence that they admitted them to any thing more than the rite of baptism, which, for aught we know with certainty, might have been followed by the delay of some probationary period, before admission to the Lord’s Supper. In the Jewish church, we know that those proselytes of the gate, who desired to be circumcised and baptized in token of their wish to keep the whole law, were distinguished from the other, for some time before their circumcision, baptism, and admission to the paschal supper. So, too, in the early preachings of Christianity, there were the audientes, or those of the heathen who were willing to hear the Gospel; the catechumens, or those who began to approve it, and submit to a course of Christian instruction; and the competentes, or those who desired baptism, and were considered fit for it. Now the fact, that the Christian Church was modeled after the synagogue, taken in connection with the Jewish custom above mentioned; and this custom of the early church, which we think could scarcely have sprung up so soon, unless suggested by apostolic usage, afford much ground for the belief that the apostles recognised a similar distinction between those admitted to baptism, and those admitted to the Lord’s table. And this opinion is confirmed by the absence of any thing to the contrary in the New Testament narrative. Here then we might at once take the ground that there is not the slightest evidence that the apostles even admitted a single supposed convert, immediately after his conversion, to the Lord’s table, to any thing more than baptism; and throwing the burden of proof upon the advocates of immediate admission, we might deny that the example of the apostles, in any one instance, favoured the admission of recent converts to all the privileges of church membership. And here we might confidently rest our argument until they should adduce from the New Testament a single instance of the immediate admission of a recent convert to the Lord’s Supper; or until they should show that admission to that ordinance uniformly accompanied the admission of baptism, a position, which the advocates of infant baptism will scarcely assert, and the opposers of it will scarcely prove.

But without insisting on this point, however well it would bear it, we are perfectly willing to meet the advocates of immediate admission on the ground of their own concessions, the instability of which we shall endeavour to show. The apostles, say they, uniformly admitted persons to all the privileges of church membership, immediately upon their declaring their belief in Christ. How they had ascertained this fact, they are not at the trouble to inform us. The truth is, that such wholesale assertions are entirely gratuitous. The evidence, that such was the uniform practice of the Apostles, is far from conclusive, unless three or four isolated cases is a sufficient warrant for so comprehensive a deduction. Let any one trace the New Testament history, and unless he possess a wonderful facility in deriving general inferences from a very inadequate number of particular facts, he will scarcely be willing to make such an assertion with confidence. The case of Cornelius cannot be adduced as clearly in favour of immediate admission, for he is spoken of as having before been "a devout man, and one that feared God, &c.;" and the term here rendered "devout," is the same which is elsewhere rendered "holy," and a derivative of which (in Acts. 3:12.) is translated by the word "holiness," which is predicated of the apostles. Neither can it be shown that Crispus and the Corinthians, spoken of in Acts 18. are instances of immediate admission; for it is certain that on this visit Paul remained at Corinth a year and six months, and all that is known is, that they were baptized, &c. while he was in the city. The case of Lydia is probably in favour of immediate admission. The cases of the converts on the day of Pentecost, of the Ethiopian eunuch, and of the Philippian jailor, undoubtedly are so. Of all the thousands then whom the Apostles admitted to the communion of the church, there are but three, or at most four cases of immediate admission; and yet these few are constantly and confidently appealed to, as affording conclusive evidence that the practice of the Apostles was uniformly the same as in these cases. But is this a sufficient basis for so general a proposition? Because a minister of the present day, is known, in peculiar circumstances, to admit a few individuals to the church, immediately upon their conversion, would it be reasonable to infer that such was always his practice? Because Paul charges Timothy to ordain no one to the office of a bishop suddenly, and to consecrate no one as a deacon whom he had not proved by a suitable period of probation, might we not show that the same caution would surely have been exercised in the case of young converts, and that none of them could have been admitted to the church without a similar season of probation, except in such peculiar circumstances as might be supposed to exist in the three or four cases adduced? Would not the argument be quite as plausible, as that by which our opponents endeavour to prove that the uniformity of apostolic practice, favours the custom of immediate admission?

But waving this consideration, (upon which we are far from insisting strongly, and which is merely suggested that each one may appreciate its force for himself) granting for a moment that the practice of the apostles did uniformly favour immediate admission, still it is contended that their practice in this respect is no guide for us. And this for various reasons. If they were inspired to read the motives and search the hearts of men, to know whether conversion was genuine or not, then it becomes us to wait till the same prerogative is ours, before we plead their practice as a precedent for our own. If they were not thus inspired, then surely we are to be guided by their example, only so far as we are warranted by the different circumstances of the church and the world at the present day. That these circumstances are not such as to render the supposed custom of the Apostles a model for modern ministers, is evident from two considerations:

First. In the times of the Apostles, both ministers and churches were few and widely scattered. An Apostle might, (as in the case of Philip and the Eunuch) meet an individual on a journey, whom, after the passing bow, he might never see again. Or a mixed multitude might assemble (as at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost) to remain there for a few days, and then to separate and be dispersed throughout the land, never again perhaps to meet with a minister of the Gospel. Now in these and parallel cases, where the only opportunity which they might ever enjoy for connecting themselves with the people of God, would in a few hours pass away forever, no one could hesitate to admit them to church membership, if they desired it, and that, perhaps, without any other evidence than their own profession of belief in Christ. Now such, or similar, be it observed, were the circumstances in every one of the three or four cases mentioned in Scripture, which favour the principle of immediate admission. But where will similar circumstances be found to exist in modern times? And how, as though the cases were at all parallel, can an argument be drawn from them, which can be applicable to the present day? Now, churches are thickly scattered throughout the land. In some parts of our country, almost every village has its spire to point the thoughts to heaven. Ministers of the Gospel are multiplied, and may be found with comparatively little difficulty at almost any time. No one, therefore, as in the days of the Apostles, is obliged by the very circumstances in which he is placed, either to join the Church immediately upon conversion, or perhaps, never. But,

Secondly. There is another and still more important difference between the Apostolic times and our own. Those who then embraced Christ, did so, not only in opposition to all their former prejudices and habits, but at the probable sacrifice of all their worldly interests, and comforts, and prospects; and often in full view of the fagot and the stake, where they might speedily be called to seal their profession with a martyr’s blood. Men would not then be in haste to "name the name of Christ," until they had deeply scrutinized the foundation of his hopes, and felt confident of their interest in the Saviour. When the reception of the Gospel arrayed the world against its professor, the very existence of hope in Christ would afford no slight proof of the Christian principle. Indeed, it were well nigh impossible to conceive of any higher evidence of sincerity than the readiness to make all the sacrifices which the profession of such a hope would involve. But now, for the most part, a public profession of religion rarely exposes an individual to opposition, to a sacrifice of personal interests, or a hazard of personal feelings. On the contrary, such a profession is generally regarded as reputable, if not honourable. So that there is now every motive to urge, as there was then every motive to prevent, a hasty profession. Now, the path of religion, so far as public sentiment is concerned, is comparatively strewed with flowers; then, it was hedged up by every form of danger and persecution and death. This point of contrast then, alone, makes it evident that the cases are not analogous, and that the circumstances of the apostolic times were so entirely dissimilar from our own, that an argument from the former is entirely inapplicable to the latter. We see therefore that it is not absolutely certain that the practice of immediate admission is sanctioned by uniform apostolic example; and that, even if it were, the circumstances of the times were such, in various respects, that such an example cannot be fairly urged as a rule for practices of modern ministers and churches.

We have thus glanced at the history of the practice of the church in different ages, in regard to the admission of its members. We have considered the arguments in favour of allotting a proper season of probation to young converts who desire to unite with the church; have examined the two most plausible objections which have been advanced against the proposed plan.

As the result of our examination, we have come to the conclusion, that the practice of "immediate admission" &c. is unwarranted by the example of the most judicious and pious of past ages and of the present day—that it is unsanctioned by the dictates of sound judgment—that it is of no advantage to the individual admitted, but rather the reverse, and that it is ruinous to the best interests of the church. Moreover, we have seen that the objections from the plea of duty are fallacious—that it is not perfectly clear that the doctrine of immediate admission is uniformly favoured by apostolic example—that it is not sustained by the analogy of their admission of individuals to higher stations in the church, and that, even if it be granted that their practice did uniformly favour the immediate admission of supposed converts to church membership, still it could not, from the different circumstances, be a guide for us.


Footnotes:

[1] Several valuable thoughts on this subject have been suggested by an article in the Connecticut Observer of March, 1833. If, in any instance, the phraseology of that article has been unwittingly adopted, it is because it was more appropriate than any that occurred to the mind of the writer. [back]

[2] Connecticut Observer, June 8, 1832. [back]


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