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BRIEF HISTORY OF OPEN COMMUNION

By William Cathcart

Published in the Berea Baptist Banner July 5, 1997.

This practice is of comparatively modern origin, and its history presents little to recommend it. It seems to have been a natural outgrowth of persecuting times, when the people of God were few in number and were compelled to worship in secret places; and when the preservation of the fundamentals of divine truth made men blind to grave errors that were regarded as not soul destroying. In the first half of the seventeenth century it made its appearance in England. John Bunyan was its ablest defender, and the church of which he was the honored pastor illustrated the natural tendencies of the system by its progress backward, in adopting infant sprinkling and the Congregational denomination. Open communion refers to fellowship at the Lord’s table, and it has three forms, —a mixed membership; occasional communion by the unbaptized in a church whose entire membership is immersed; and two churches in the same building, meeting together for ordi- nary worship, but celebrating the Lord’s Supper at sepa- rate times. The first was Bunyan’s, the second is followed by Spurgeon, the third was the plan adopted by Robert Hall in Leicester. The community in Hall’s chapel, which he called “The Open Communion Church,” was com- posed of “The Congregation” as distinct from the church and such members of the church as might unite with them. On his retirement from his pastorate in Leicester, he sent two resignations to the people of his charge in that city, —one to “The Church of Christ meeting in Harvey Lane,” and another to “The Open Commun- ion Church meeting in Harvey Lane.” 1 In this country the mixed membership form of open communion had a very extensive trial, not in regular Baptist churches nor in regular Baptist Associations. At quite an early period in our history there were commu- nities practicing immersion and tolerating infant sprin- kling, or placing both upon an equal footing. No one of our original Associations held open communion. The annual or other gathering among Open Communists similar to an Association was called “A Conference,” 2 “A General Meeting,” or “A Yearly Meeting.” John Asplund, in giving an account of the Associations and other meetings of the communities that practiced im- mersion, says, “The Groton Conference was begun .Their sentiments are general provision (the Arminian view of the atonement) and open or large communion. Keep no correspondence.” That is, they were not recognized by the Warren or any New England Baptist Associa- tion. He speaks of a “General Meeting” in Maine, and he states that it was “gathered about 1786. They hold to the Bible without any other confession of faith. Keep no cor- respondence. Very strict in the practical part of religion.

Their sentiments are universal provision and final fall- ing from grace.” 3 These people were Arminians, and were not in fraternal relations with Baptists. In the New Light revivals in New England, where the converted people left the Congregational and formed “Separate Churches,” the membership was often equally divided between Baptists and Pedobaptists. They loved one another; they were hated by the state religious es- tablishment; they made special efforts and sometimes solemn pledges that they would not alight each other’s opinions. Open communion never had a fairer field, and yet it was a complete failure. Instead of promoting charity it broke up the peace of churches, and it was finally renounced by pretty nearly all its original friends. Isaac Backus, the historian, while pastor of an open com- munion church at Titicut, was actually compelled by the malice stirred up by open communion to form a new organization, that he and his people might have peace. Hovey says, “If any member of the church de- sired to have his children baptized, he had permission to call in a minister from abroad to perform the act; and if any member who had been sprinkled in infancy wished to be baptized, full permission was granted Mr. Backus to administer the rite. Moreover, it was agreed that no one should introduce any conversation which would lead to remarks on the subjects or the mode of .These persistent endeavors to live in peace were unavailing. For when infants were sprinkled the Baptists showed their dissatisfaction without leaving the house, and when Mr. Backus baptized certain members of his own church, the Congregationalists would not go to witness the immersion, but called it rebaptizing and taking the name of the Trinity in vain. And when the members of the church met for conference they were afraid to speak their minds freely, lest offense might be given, and this fear led to an unbrotherly shyness.” 4 For the sake of peace Backus was driven, Jan. 16, 1756, to have a Baptist church formed. And the same cause, aided by increasing light from the Word of God, destroyed this pernicious feature in nearly all the open commun- ion bodies in New England. In Nova Scotia mixed communion was the custom of the churches in which Baptists held their member- ship. In 1798, when the Nova Scotia Association was formed, its churches were all on this platform, and some of the ministers were Pedobaptists. About 1774, when one of the churches was destitute of a pastor, Mr. Allen had two ruling elders ordained, one a Baptist and the other a Congregationalist, with power to administer the ordinances “each in his own way, agreeably to the sen- timents of his brethren; but this was a short-lived

Brief History of Open Communion by William Cathcart - Page 1

church.” In 1809, the Association passed a resolution that no church should be a member of it that permitted open communion. 5 And long since the churches of that province discarded the unscriptural practice altogether. The pioneer Baptist ministers of Ontario and Quebec were open communionists, and their little churches caught their spirit; but today the Baptists of these prov- inces are men whose orthodoxy their brethren every- where may regard with admiration. Open communion in England is a splendid worldly door for a Baptist to pass through when he wishes to exchange the plain Dis- senting chapel for the gorgeous State church, but it has no attraction for the Pedobaptist, unless a Spurgeon for a brief season may excite his curiosity. Nearly twenty years ago an open communion church was established in San Francisco, known as the Union Square Baptist church. The members were godly, the pastor was able, earnest, and devoted. No similar ex- periment was ever tried under more favorable circum- stances. But after testing the project for many years the discovery forced itself upon the pious leaders of the enterprise that there was a defect in the scriptural basis of their church, and the pastor withdrew and subse- quently united with the Regular Baptists. The church, at a meeting held April 28, 1880, by a vote almost unani- mous, placed itself in harmony with the great Baptist denomination of the United States. Our doctrine of restricted communion is more gen- erally and intensely cherished among us at this time than at any previous period in our history. Open commun- ion is regarded as a departure from scriptural require- ment, as an attack upon the convictions of nearly all Christendom, and as a source of fraction and discord. (Baptist Encyclopedia, Vol. I, pp. 257-258, 1881 edition).

FOOTNOTES

1. Hall’s Works, Vol. 1, pp. 125-126, London, 1851.

2. Backus’s History of the Baptists, ii. 44. Newton.

3. Annual Register, pp. 48,49, 1790.

4. Hovey’s Life and Times of Isaac Backus, 115-118.

5. Benedict’s History of the Baptist Denomination, pp.

521,523,539, New York, 1848.