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A Dissuasive from Controversy, respecting the Mode of Baptism. A Sermon on the Mode of Baptism. By G. C. BECKWITH, Pastor of a Church in Lowell, Mass. Andover, 1828.
One of these titles is on the cover of the pamphlet; the other is on the regular title page. After carefully reading the discourse, we were impelled to look again at the "explanatory notice" prefixed to it, of which the following is an extract:
'The reader ought to be assured that nothing but necessity could have forced me before even my own people on such a subject as the mere form of a ceremony. During a prosperous revival of religion, and at the very time of its greatest power and prosperity, the mode of baptism became all at once a topic of conversation from one end of my parish to the other. It checked, and threatened ere long to stop the work of God. Many of my people importuned me to say something; but I adhered to my usual maxim of silence for the sake of peace, until I saw the revival brought to the very brink of total declension. I then consulted my fathers in the ministry, and at length consented, not indeed to dispute, but barely to dissuade my own people, whatever others might do, from agitating such a subject of controversy. The crisis was met, and the blessing of God on a very humble effort gave a new and lasting impulse to the revival. My church requested me to publish the discourse; this request has often been urgently repeated by individuals; but with the hope of its being unnecessary, I have delayed until I find that among a people so transient and so peculiarly exposed, I must either preach often, or publish.'
We cannot withhold the expression of our surprise that any minister of Christ should prefix such a notice to such a sermon. There is something in the notice itself, which appears suspicious. It savors very little of the spirit of apostolical example to manifest so much reluctance-express so many regrets-be at last forced, with so much difficulty, to speak the truth. We had always understood, that the commission-yea, the injunction of the gospel to all its heralds forbade their shunning to declare the whole counsel of God. If, therefore, it had been the only purpose of Mr Beckwith to exhibit "before his own people," not what men's wisdom, or men's tradition teaches, but what the Holy Ghost, by the pen of inspiration, teaches-there would surely be no necessity for this labored prefatory apology to the published sermon-and no justification for this backwardness to deliver it, which yielded to nothing, we are told, but the advice of "his fathers in the ministry."
We have another objection to this notice. The very point and pith of it, so far as important matters of fact are involved, is error. We are unwilling to suppose that the author of this sermon, whom we have understood to be a young man, of less prejudice and intolerance than some farther advanced in life-we are unwilling to suppose that such a man has intentionally made a misrepresentation.
It is not for us to judge him. Of his motives and his own impressions we say nothing. We know that, sometimes, prejudice and excited feelings lead even good men to see what in reality does not exist, and to fail of seeing what in reality is before the eye; and the longer we live, the more are we impressed with the importance of speaking cautiously and tenderly in regard to the secret intentions of our fellow men. But certain facts have come to our knowledge which we feel bound not to withhold. At the very time when the author's "explanatory notice represents this prosperous revival brought to the very brink of total declension, by the MODE of baptism becoming a topic of conversation from one end of his parish to the other, checking and threatening ere long to stop the work of God,-at that very time, as his assistant in the ministry has been heard to assert, the number of anxious inquirers in his society was about sixty. That the revival generally, through the town, was in a prosperous state, is confirmed by the testimony of witnesses whose opportunities of information, and whose perfect integrity are unquestionable. The following statements will show that we do not speak at random.
'Lowell, Aug. 20, 1829.
'I beg you will pardon my long, too long delay in answering yours of the 18th of April. I cannot, and therefore will not attempt to offer reasons for it; but acknowledging my fault, will proceed to reply, as well as records and recollection will enable me; and which, in all important particulars, will be true to a word, and in all respects correct in substance.
'The state of religious attention in Lowell generally, in the months of February, March, and April, 1828, was deeply interesting; and I believe more so than for the same length of time at any period since. And in fact, I do not recollect any former term of three months, in which more interest was evinced than during the above time.
'So far was the revival from " the brink of total declension" in the Baptist society, that it was considered by our brethren, as much or more than ever encouraging. The average number of real inquirers in our society during this time was about twenty-two; and the number added to the Baptist church in five weeks, ending the last of March, 1828, was thirty-two.
'As to the state of the work in the other societies, I recollect to have heard nothing discouraging, till Mr Beckwith appointed to preach on the subject of baptism to his church. It was in March that he preached. I heard the sermon, which, with alterations and omissions, is now before the public, and is the one under consideration. I do not recollect any expression in the sermon, as he delivered it, which betrayed the thought that he believed the revival had already come to the "brink of total declension ;" but he warned the people of the danger of declension, if they did not drive the thoughts of Baptism from their minds. Among others, he made this remark, which I noted: 'I tell you, keep your minds away from baptism.'
I am not able to say what additions were made to the Congregational church at this time; but all reports from them agreed that they were very large-much larger than to ours.
'Mr S. who was Mr Beckwith's assistant, called on me the week after a short review of Mr Beckwith's " "explanatory notice appeared in the Watchman, to inquire who was the author of it. I asked why he wished to know the author. He said the statements in it were not true. I asked what was false. He replied, that part which denied that the revival had come to the brink of total declension. I remarked that at the time referred to, (February and March,) members of their own church declared that a hundred inquirers attended their weekly inquiry meetings, and therefore we felt warranted in publicly stating that the revival had not then come to the brink of total declension. Mr S. then denied having a hundred in their inquiry meetings at that time. Well, then, said I, pray how many had you? About sixty,' was his answer; upon which I remarked, I cannot easily conceive how a revival can be considered to be on the brink of total declension in a Society where sixty are inquiring what they shall do to be saved. To which he did not reply, but added-' You ought to have called on Mr Beckwith with your objections, and not to have made the matter so public.' I answered, that as Mr Beckwith's statement had been made public, we felt under a sort of obligation, as publicly to correct it, that the "plaster might be as large as the sore.
Leaving this part of the subject, Mr S. complained that the reviewer had made a misstatement in his "note" in the Watchman respecting a vote of the church to immerse any person wishing to unite with them who should be desirous of receiving baptism in that "mode." I replied, that statement was founded also on the testimony of members of Mr Beckwith's church, who affirmed that that vote was unanimously passed in full church meeting, and publicly announced from the desk in the hearing of the whole congregation on Lord's day. Mr S. denied all this, or rather denied its being made public; but on the day following he called and candidly confessed that what was published was true, but that he was not aware of the vote's being made public, till he had inquired and found that it was so. J. C. MORRILL.'
'The undersigned were well situated for knowing the state of affairs in Lowell at the time referred to in the preceding letter; one of us heard the conversation with Mr S. concerning the number of inquirers; and we believe that the letter exhibits a true account of the matters of which it treats. E. W. FREEMAN. WILLIAM D. MASON.'
It is painful to us as Christians, to place these things on record. But the alternative is forced upon us, either of suffering the evil consequences of misrepresentations to proceed, or of contributing our mite towards arresting their progress by a plain statement of facts. Had the call, which was distinctly and publicly made for the proof of the assertion in the explanatory notice, when it first apОст. 1826.
peared, been promptly met, we should have been saved the pain of now recurring to the subject.
Next comes an announcement in this same " notice," of the design of the author. He "at length consented-not indeed to dispute, but barely to dissuade his own people, whatever others might do, from agitating such a subject of controversy." It is his wish, therefore, that his present labor should be regarded simply as a dissuasive from controversy. Now admitting this to be his real purpose, we cannot help inquiring why he and his brethren, who are so strenuous advocates for controversy on every other topic of faith or religious practice, and who do not hesitate to avow and defend their opinions of its importance and necessity-why, on this subject alone, they manifest such a dread? Our justification for speaking of the sentiments and feelings of Pedobaptists generally, as identified with Mr Beckwith, is found in the fact that their principal periodicals have bestowed on this sermon their high and unqualified commendation. A second edition, we are told, has been called for, and it is circulated with great zeal and perseverance, not only by the author, but by his fathers in the ministry. Even more than this: Some of the less discreet friends of sprinkling have represented this sermon as an unanswerable argument against immersion, forgetting in the fervor of the moment, the palpable absurdity of finding unanswerable arguments in a dissuasive appeal against all arguments.* But letting this pass for the present, we renew the inquiry, with some interest and earnestness, Why exclude one of the two ordinances which Christ has enjoined upon his disciples from the field of legitimate investigation? Is it becoming in us to say that this is an external thing-a mere outward ordinance—or, as Mr Beckwith tells us a score of times over, the mere form of a ceremony, and therefore we may alter it to suit our convenience, or dispense with whatever our refinement objects to? Are we, then, so much wiser and better than the Lawgiver and Head of the church? Is it a small thing to break one of the least of his commandments, and teach men the perversion? Does it reflect honor on Him who came to teach the way of God in truth, and to make our duty plain, and whose manner of teaching was such that the common people heard him gladly? Is it at all indicative of any known characteristic of his instructions that, either by design, inadvertency, or incapacity, he should leave us in doubt and indecision what to do, when his word enjoins on us, Be baptized every one of you? It will be borne in mind by every candid inquirer after truth, that baptism is an external, visible act; capable, of course, of simple and intelligible definition; less liable, by far, to misconception, than those terms which describe the different states of mind, or the affections of the heart. We solemnly beseech those whose business it is to explain and enforce
* Since the above was written, we have seen the second edition. planatory notice is somewhat abridged, without any retraction, or the losing of its characteristic features. One of the titles mentioned at the head of this article is discreetly omitted; and the other, namely, a Dissuasive from Controversy respecting the Mode of Baptism, is retained.
the commands of God to remember, that, when they enjoin on their hearers the duties which Peter, on the memorable day of Pentecost, pressed on those who were pricked in heart, namely, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you," and then go on to tell their listening audience that it is doubtful, and quite unnecessary to know precisely what is specified in the last of these dutieswe beseech them to remember that those who hear them will, with confidence and with more abundant reason, extend the same latitude and doubtfulness of explanation to the first and to every other requirement of the Bible. The word describing this ordinance through the whole New Testament, by all the different apostles and evangelists, is one and the same; and we are not aware that all the efforts made, and all the violence done to this unoffending term, have ever shown that its ritual use * differs from the primary, the leading idea conveyed by it in the best writers, sacred and profane, or that it necessarily has, when applied to this ordinance, a meaning or an example that is not definite and uniform. But the present usages are widely variant,-so inconsistent with one another, that quite sure are we, if there were no motive for concluding differently, these varieties would be thought quite inconsistent with the meaning of one definite term. And the question we are now canvassing is, whether we shall endeavor, by fair and temperate discussion, to settle and render uniform, what this part of Christian obedience requires. May we be permitted to urge our objections to some practices which, our opponents themselves being judges, have no certain precept or plain example in God's word to sustain them? May we bring to their notice the discordant confessions and practices of their own brethren and themselves? And more than all, may we hold up to them again and again, the motto of the reformation-the Bible, the Bible is the only law of Protestants. If it is lawful for us to do this at any time, most certainly there can be no good reason for its neglect at the very time when decision and action are rendered necessary; when those who have gladly received the word, and who desire to be added to the church, inquire how they shall put on the Lord Jesus Christ. An investigation made at such a time, when the heart is warmed with love to Jesus, and the sacred records of the founding of his church stand out with a prominency that no sophistical reasoning can hide, is likely to terminate in a desire to be immersed. And it is the probability of such a result that has produced among our Pedobaptist brethren a dislike to the introducing of any considerations involving this ordinance, in the time of a revival. Whoever heard that Baptists were averse to the candid consideration of this question, in a time of revival, or that they urged forward those who were doubting and uninformed on this subject, with the convenient argument, It is perfectly indifferent, a mere nonessential; or, finally, who ever heard of the introduction and the discussion of this subject at such a time, without its producing conviction in some, and generally in many minds that
* See Dr Woods.