Dexter's Congregationalism

A VIEW of Congregationalism which is based upon its records, histories, and apologies has certain advantages and disadvantages. The intellectual vigor and independence of the polity is disclosed ; that is an advantage, and one sees clearly how closely the movement is allied with the general progress of liberty of thought. The practical result in life, however, the outcome of faith and zeal, the constructive power in education and missions,— these are not disclosed, and that is a disadvantage. One closes this ponderous work of Dr. Dex-

ter’s1 almost with a belief that the Congregationalism which he has been developing from its literature is a wrangle of sectaries over things indifferent, — a shutting up of religious life within certain narrow limits, and then an unending conflict of words about the definition of those limits. Dr. Dexter has added an appendix, which he modestly offers as a contribution toward a full bibliography of Congregationalism, containing over seven thousand titles of books, tracts, sermons, broadsides, and the like; and it is not altogether surprising if the superficial reader judges that the religious movement known under this name is an intellectual variation of Protestantism rather than an organic part.

The lectures which make up Dr. Dexter’s volume were delivered before a professional audience, and in recasting them for publication it does not seem that the author has had any purpose to popularize them ; on the contrary, he has fortified every point taken with explicit foot-notes, and the work bears on its face the look of learning. Nevertheless, the general reader of history will have no difficulty in discovering the importance and interest of the book for him. The subject is held to closely, and illustrated by pertinent facts and writings. A preliminary lecture discusses the religious condition of England at the beginning of the sixteenth century, with a view to show the need of a reformation. It may be hinted that here as elsewhere Dr. Dexter assumes too readily the exclusively reformatory function of Congregationalism, and ignores—as perhaps his subject compels him — other influences at work in the kingdom. He finds the first considerable prophet of the new order in Robert Browne, and seeks to rescue his fame from the somewhat unsavory condition it had acquired; he then reviews the Martin Marprelate controversy, and makes good his claim for the earnestness and substantial ability of the Marprelate tracts ; he gives his reasons for believing that Barrowe was the author, and under the title of The Martyrs of Congregationalism makes out the story of Barrowe, Penry, and others ; he follows the first separatists to Amsterdam, and exposes their weakness with an unhesitating hand when he gives page after page to the ignoble controversy of the Johnsons; the struggle of the early church there in the dreary days before John Robinson appeared are recited; and at length, in the lecture on John Robinson and Leyden Congregational-

ism, he reaches a point where his history attains some degree of dignity and general interest. The reader who bears in mind the historic progress of England will notice that the access of strength and virtue to Congregationalism was concurrent with the rise of Puritanism within the church; and as he follows Dr. Dexter in his studies to this continent, viewing the planting at Plymouth and the Puritan migration to Massachusetts Bay, he will see in the resultant Congregationalism conditions and movements which are to be referred to great political as well as religious ideas. The closing lectures treat of the course of Congregationalism here, ecclesiastical councils, the contemporaneous fortunes of the polity in England, and finally of the general principles discovered from the historic survey.

We have to thank Dr. Dexter for furnishing us with so thorough an exposition of an ecclesiastical movement which is identified with our own early history, is of great importance in any clear conception of the progress of liberty, and is to-day an active element in the determination of religious history. We may think him sometimes too disposed to mistake cause and effect, and to refer to an ecclesiastical polity what is due rather to an advance in knowledge and thought within all the bounds of Protestantism, but we cannot accuse him of concealing the history of his church. Its littleness as well as its greatness is impartially, if not always wittingly, displayed, and if one were disposed to be a merely captious critic of this way of religion, he would find himself abundantly supplied with weapons of offense. The exclusive spirit of Congregationalism, by which it perpetually seeks to set itself in judgment on the world and its own members, is again and again illustrated in this history. The logical issue is presented so boldly that Dr. Dexter himself pronounces judgment upon it, as when, in a foot-note, on page 293, to the statement that several officers and members of the church at Amsterdam waited upon George Johnson to know if he purposed to receive the sacrament on the following Sunday, saying that many would not partake if he did, he remarks, “ Thus early the illogical and silly notion that a believer, in communing with his Lord and with the church, in some way indorses the conduct of any to his thought unworthily partaking with him shows itself within the congregational body.” Yet why illogical ? Is such a proceeding anything more than pushing to an extreme the original dissent from the Church of England ? Edward Winslow, an unimpeachable witness, in his Hypocrisie Unmasked, as quoted by Dr. Dexter, page 406, thus defends John Robinson: —

“ ’ T is true, I confess, he was more rigid in his course and way at first, than towards his latter end; for his study was peace and union so far as might agree with faith and a good conscience; and for schism and division, there was nothing in the world more hatefull to him: But for the government of the Church of England, as it was in the Episcopall way, the Liturgy and stinted prayers of the Church then ; yea, the constitution of it as Nationall, and so consequently the corrupt communion of the unworthy with the worthy receivers of the Lord’s Supper, these things were never approved of him, but witnessed against to his death, and are by the church over which he was to this day.”

Robinson allowed in his day, as Dexter allows in ours, that the Church of England contained many godly people with whom he could commune ; yet these people then as now succeeded in maintaining a good conscience without separating themselves from those who showed darker against the sky. Protest there must be against corruption in any church that has life, and it may happen that the

protest must take the form of separation; but it would be a hasty judgment which referred the vitality, for example, of the Church of England only to the successive separative protests of Congregationalism and Methodism, powerful as these have been. The logical result of Congregationalism is in individual separatism, but there is always a conservative force in great bodies which refuses to permit extreme logic. The logical result of Anglicanism, if we may believe Dr. Dexter’s hints, is a return to Romanism, but neither Congregationalism nor Anglicanism accommodate our logic by running to the end of the rope.

It is in just this working aspect of an ecclesiastical system that we are bound to look for its practical value, and Congregationalism in America had exceptional advantages at the start. It withdrew from England a body of men who, in putting their theories to the test, brought character, resolution, brain, and sinew; they grew strong in subduing the wilderness, moreover, and the real trial of their system came later, when the form had hardened and threatened to inclose the spiritual substance. The honor and glory of Congregationalism in the early life of New England were in the infusion of religious power into the state; to-day, the most signal proof of its vitality must be looked for in education and missions. Dr. Dexter’s titlepage reminds us that three centuries have passed since its historic genesis ; within that time it has accumulated traditions and a policy, but one may take leave to doubt whether it has demonstrated its comprehensiveness as an organism. Certainly, if we measure the organic growth of Congregationalism with that of the nation in which it has had fullest scope, we do not see an equal progress. In the one case, there is constant temptation to ignore the past, for the historic life of Congregationalism has not been very cumulative; in the other case, there has been a development of form toward the more conclusive and comprehensive. Simplicity of form has its attractions ; but if the life held in it is rich and strong, the form itself will obey the law of growth and make room for the expanding spirit. Man as a religious being can no more afford to sever himself from historic development than can man as a political being, and one of the interesting phases of modern Congregationalism is the struggle constantly going on to check tendencies toward development. Owing to the inorganic character of the body, individual members have little difficulty in slipping away from it and connecting themselves with orders of greater continuity; but the conciliary manifestoes only reassert the old formulas, and deny the possibility of any further step. Dr. Dexter ingeniously and probably with reason explains Robinson’s famous saying that there is more light yet to break forth from God’s word as limited entirely to organization, but it is pretty clear from his own book that, however he might agree with Robinson as to the incom-

pleteness of the Congregational system at that date, he would be quite as ready to regard the full light to have been now attained in the matter of church, government as Robinson himself was in the matter of church doctrine.

We commend this very interesting book to all who would study the workings of a vigorous ecclesiastical protest. They will find the writer to be no apologist for his creed, but confident in its entire superiority ; and this confidence, as we have hinted, leads him to write unreservedly, where others might prudently veil the truth. One little irritation we have suffered, and that is from the ugly use of the word fellowship and even disfellowship as verbs. We have read over and over again this sentence, with a dim notion of its meaning, but with increasing sense of its deformity : “ Councils called thus to fellowship the termination of the pastoral relation have not infrequently,” etc. The book has been very carefully printed, and the author evidently has taken the utmost pains to secure accuracy.

  1. The Congregationalism of the last Three Hundred Years, as seen in its Literature. With Special Reference to certain Recondite, Neglected, or Disputed Passages. In twelve lectures, delivered on the Southworth foundation in the Theological Seminary at Andover, Mass., 1876-1879. With a Bibliographical Appendix. By HENRY MARTYN DEXTER. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.