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It would be difficult to conceive of a law more fully charged with mischief to the interests of vital piety than that modified enactment which I have just described. Unquestionably, if a man must be taxed to support a form of public worship, he ought to be allowed to say to what particular form of worship his money shall be appropriated. The common justice of this principle the pilgrim fathers, or their immediate successors, in Massachusetts, soon discovered ; but they did not foresee how the law which they made would operate, though one would think that they might have anticipated it.
Its influence in less than a century was so manifest, that there could be no mistake in pronouncing it to be disastrous to true religion. At first, and indeed for a long time, the greater portion of those who refused to allow the money which they paid for the support of public worship to go to the parish or congregational church, did so for valid, conscientious reasons. They preferred some other church which was equally orthodox as to all fundamental matters. This led to the establishment of Baptist, Episcopal, and finally, Methodist churches, together with a few of the Presbyterian denomination, and of the smaller Evangelical sects. Thus far the operation of the law could not be pronounced disastrous to true religion. But in the progress of the declension of religion in Boston and the adjoining country, which I have already described, and which affected all Massachusetts and some of the neighbouring states, men were found in some parishes who neither loved the parish church nor any other in which the truth was preached, but who were ready to say, “ If we must contribute to the support of the public worship we will have a sort that suits us." So they united their efforts, when sufficiently numerous, and built up a Unitarian or Universalist church, and appointed a preacher to their taste. In this way many a Unitarian or Universalist society was formed in Massachusetts. In Connecticut the law was abolished in time to anticipate much of the evil. But in Massachusetts, where the law continued in existence much longer, the evils resulting from it were more numerous and more fully developed.
In the last-named commonwealth there were other circumstances which rendered the union of church and state which existed extremely fatal to true religion. For instance, all who contributed to the support of the parish church had a right to vote in all the meetings of the congregation or parish (as it is usually called) assembled for the appointment or the dismission of a pastor, or on any other business for which the congregation might be convened. Now it often happened that where the majority of the inhabitants had become Unitarians or Universalists, they expelled an orthodox minister of the gospel, or supplied the vacant pulpit with a minister of their own sentiments. To make this point more intelligible, it is necessary for me to state, that there is in each parish in Massachusetts two bodies-one is the church, strictly so called ; that is, the body of professing Christians, who are stated communicantsthe other includes the whole congregation, or as it is usually called, the parish, which comprises all who attend the parish church or place of worship. Now when a pastor is called, the church, that is the body of believers, meets and calls whom the majority of them may prefer. Then a meeting is held of the parish, as it is called, that is, of all the heads of families who attend the regular parish church. At that meeting the candidate proposed by the church is considered. If the majority agree in the choice of the church, then that individual is elected to that parish church or congregation. But if they do not agree, then the church must propose some other minister.
Now, as the parish or congregation determines the salary of the minister, and controlled by law (as it has been interpreted by the highest courts in that state), the property belonging to the parish church, it is obvious that where there is a majority in any parish who are enemies to the truth, they can easily get clear of a faithful minister, and supply his place by one of a very different character. And for the last twenty years this struggle has been going on in that state. Where the evangelical party prevails, the heterodox party are compelled to submit, or retire, and form a church of their own. In that case they leave the old parish church, which is, of course, the property of the evangelical party. On the contrary, if the heterodox party have the majority in the parish, they can easily drive out the evangelical party, who, in that case, have no alternative left to them but to erect a house of worship for themselves. In this way the contest has been going on in Massachusetts; and the work of separation will continue until it be completed. In many of the largest parishes the Unitarians or Universalists, or both united, have a majority, and have kept possession of the parish church and whatever funds and other property it may have. In many cases the majority is on the other side, and the evangelical party have prevailed. Painful as this struggle has been, yet it was unavoidable. The separation must take place. And although many churches which were erected by the piety of men who have long since slept with their fathers have fallen into the hands of those who deny the “ Lord who bought them,” yet the interests of true religion are advancing. Evangelical Christians, when driven out of the churches where their fathers worshipped, have gone to work and built new ones, and the truth gains ground in all directions. I ought to add, that the conflict and separation which have been taking place during the last twenty years in Massachusetts have not been attended with violations of the public laws. All has been done in an orderly manner, though there has been much keen excitement of feeling, as might be supposed.
It is obvious, from what I have stated, that the laws of Massachusetts have done much to establish Unitarians and Universalists in that State. It is there that their strong hold is to be found. And although it is certain that if the laws had not built them up, they never would have been established, as they now are; yet it is also plain that being thus established, and having now churches, (many of which they did not erect, but wrested them from the hands of the evangelical party,) and having in many cases large and rich congregations, they can now maintain themselves on the voluntary prin
ciple. The opposition which they meet will supply them, for a long time, with the zeal requisite to sustain their efforts.
In those states, where religion has always been let alone by the civil authorities, there are very few congregations of Unitarians or Universalists to be found. Indeed, there are scarcely any such congregations to be found out of Massachusetts, and especially out of New England, which may not be mainly attributed to the emigration of Unitarians or Universalists from that part of the United States. So long as religious error is left to its own resources, it is not generally very active. The laws of Massachusetts rendered it energetic, and gave it the means of becoming established. In the greater part of the United States, the people who care nothing about religion commonly do nothing against it. They have not zeal enough to do that. But if they were compelled by law to support some form of public worship, the face of things would soon change; and it would be found that there is not a State in the Union where many Unitarian, or Universalist, or Roman Catholic churches would not be built up within a few years. But now these same persons, not being compelled to contribute to support any church, and not feeling any oppression in regard to this matter, are no way inclined, either by preference or by hatred to the truth, to build churches for the maintenance of error, or to support its preachers. This is the general state of things throughout almost the whole of the middle, western, and southern States. There are, indeed, some congregations of errorists; but the number is as nothing in comparison with what it would have been if the same course had every where been adopted which has been pursued in that State.
I have now said enough to show how disastrous, for the cause of the truth, the laws of Massachusetts, relating to the maintenance of public worship, have been for more than 200 years. My next and concluding letter will contain a general notice of the progress of Unitarianism and Universalism in the United States, as well as of the present state of evangelical religion in that country.
STEAM-BOATS, VIADUCTS, AND RAILWAYS.
Motions and means on land and sea at war
Wm. Wordsworth's Sonnets.
HINTS ON COUNTY ASSOCIATIONS.
(To the Editor.) THE “ Congregational Union of England and Wales,” is principally constituted by delegates from our various County Associations. The character of this large annual assembly, therefore, must be chiefly derived from those smaller unions throughout the country, which send their representatives. The sentiments and the spirit of the constituency will be the sentiments and spirit of the general meeting. Every whole is precisely that which its parts make it; and just in proportion as we desire to raise the character and increase the efficiency of our “Union," we must, in the first place, labour to improve our County Associations.
The writer has long been convinced that this part of our system, as Congregationalists, is sadly overlooked.
This is a matter of deep regret, when viewed not merely in relation to the general union, but also in reference to the spiritual interests of the ministers, churches, and inhabitants generally, comprised within the limits of our various Associations.
The writer refrains from all attempts to prove the value of union in itself, and its perfect consistency with our fundamental principles. Congregationalists need no such arguments; they are an insult to their understanding, and a burlesque upon their practice. What are our separate churches, in the constitution of which we uniformly glory, but so many unions in the true sense of individual believers ? And what gave rise to our Associations but our conviction of the value of union? But is this part of our system put into sufficient operation as it might be ? Do we strive to give that character to our Associations, of which they are easily susceptible, and by which they might be rendered invaluable auxiliaries, in promoting the general interests of religion, and the stability and usefulness of our body at large? Do we not frequently suffer them to degenerate into meetings merely for the transaction of the secular concerns of the Union ? and do we not anticipate them merely as interesting diversions from the ordinary round of ministerial duty, as agreeable opportunities of enjoying a friendly chit-chat with brethren, who, but for such occasions, might never meet? And hence is not the attendance at them deemed a matter of convenience rather than of duty ?
The association of ministers from various parts of an extensive district, of men of different views, habits, and modes of exertion; men placed in a great variety of circumstances, and having access to different sources of information-the association of such individuals, if rightly arranged, and wisely conducted, might be turned to the most profitable account. To facilitate the transaction of the secular concerns of the Union, at the annual meeting, the county, if large, might be divided into two or three districts. A report of the proceedings, in each district, during the year, might be forwarded to the county secretary some time prior to the annual meeting. These reports being read and approved of at the general meeting, little more business of a secular nature would remain, except that of voting from the funds of the association a sum of money for each district sufficient for carrying on its peculiar operations. These funds, it may be observed, would be much increased by obtaining annual subscriptions as well as public collections, as in the case of our foreign missions.
Having disposed as quickly as possible of such matters, considerable time might then remain for giving attention to subjects of a higher, more extensive, and more sacred character. The writer begs to narrate, as a partial illustration of his meaning, the proceedings of the Annual Association of Ministers and Churches, of the county of Stafford, recently held. A special meeting was held on Monday evening, June 26th, to implore the divine blessing on the approaching services. On the following morning the brethren assembled for transacting the appropriate business of the Association. A sermon on the operations of the Holy Spirit was delivered in the evening. A prayer-meeting, numerously attended, was held on Wednesday morning, at seven o'clock. The remaining portion of the county business was soon afterwards disposed of. The time of the ministers was then occupied in discussing matters that affect the interests of the body generally. A public meeting was held in the afternoon, when several ministers delivered addresses. In the evening a discourse was delivered on the scriptural view of the duty of the Christians to labour for the conversion of their fellow-creatures. Afterwards all the members of the churches present partook of the Lord's Supper. A prayer-meeting was held on Thursday morning, commencing at seven o'clock. The ministers then spent the whole of the morning together in discussing in an affectionate, familiar, and devotional spirit, the question “ by what means may the efficiency of our ministry be increased ?" Some useful business was attended to in the afternoon, and in the evening a service was held in the open air, when several of them officiated. A meeting of the church members, in whose neighbourhood the above services took place, was held on Friday evening, with a view of securing a spiritual improvement of the whole.
The impression produced by these engagements was of a strictly religious and truly profitable character. Our hearts were melted; we felt more deeply than ever our weighty responsibility as ministers of the gospel ; the bond of affection between the brethren was strengthened ; we gained much practical information, and felt additionally resolved to consecrate our whole lives to the service of our glorious Redeemer.
Protracted religious meetings are sanctioned by apostolic example, and have been found extremely auxiliary to the cause of vital godliness in modern times. Why should they not be generally encouraged? Why should not our annual county associations be raised to the character of strictly religious meetings, whose direct tendency will be to deepen the tone of spirituality, to fan the flame of holy zeal, to strengthen the bonds of brotherly love, to improve our efforts of usefulness, to elicit the hidden resources of our ministers and churches, and to awaken the impenitent to an anxious concern for their eternal salvation ?
I remain, yours truly,
J. C. G.