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It bore the striking family likeness, so obvious in all the American constitutions, in their leading features, while, in detail, no two can be said to be alike. It was but an individual of another variety having the same general characteristics. It could not be otherwise, for, like them, it was the work of the chosen representatives of men whose hearts had never fainted, and whose hands had never been weary, in the discouragements and toils of the struggle for independence.
Thus a wisely constituted system of church polity should always partake of the general nature and form of the political institutions under which it is to operate, especially in popular governments, lest one of antagonizing principles, in times of exaltation, should triumph over the other. "Thus it was, that, under the eye, and with the approbation or permission of the apostles, different modes of church government prevailed in different countries. The ecclesiastical constitution which might well accord with the national sentiments and civil usages of the Christians of Syria or Persia, or the provinces of Hellenic Asia, might be altogether repugnant to the feelings of the churches of Greece proper, of Italy, Gaul, or northern Africa. That sort of superstitious, servile and despotic inflexibility, which is characteristic of the arrogant churchman of later ages, assuredly was not the temper of the first promulgators of the gospel. St. Paul, especially, had learned that high wisdom which is at once immovable in principle and compliant in circumstantials. He carried about no iron model of ecclesiastical government, from country to country." "The liquid and convertible terms" in which the polity of the first churches is dimly and uncertainly shadowed forth in the New Testament, not by inculcation but by diversified example, only authorizes the belief that, by the agency of bishops, elders, and deacons, the churches are to be taught and governed by that system of combinations and rules which is best fitted to existing circumstances;-bishops, ordained by the laying on of the hands of the presbyters, equal in power and rights, administering the sacraments and instructing the people, in a particular church ;-elders, chosen by the people, the equal coadjutors of the bishops in government and discipline-deacons, chosen by the people, to receive and distribute the alms and take care of the poor of a particular church. These are regarded by Presbyterians, as the scriptural elements of ecclesiastical organization, and their combination into various
ly constituted judicial and supervisory bodies with prescribed rights and duties, in the constitution of the presbyterian church, deserves a moment's attention in connection with this subject.
The bishop and elders of a particular church, chosen by that church, constitute the first judicatory, called the church session, which is clothed with the right of admitting new members and is charged with the duty of maintaining the spiritual government of that particular church, subject to an appeal to the presbytery.
The Presbytery is a judicatory formed of all the bishops, and one elder from each church, (chosen by the session,) in a district embracing several churches. This judicatory has the original jurisdiction of licensing, ordaining and judging ministers, and of receiving new churches, and is charged with the duty of visiting the churches, deciding appeals from the sessions and reviewing their proceedings, subject, however, to appeals to the synod. All proceedings effecting the rights or standing of church members must originate in the session, and those affecting clergymen must originate in the presbytery.
The Synod is the next superior judicatory and consists of all the bishops, and an elder from each church, in a district embracing at least three presbyteries. It is charged with the duty of erecting, uniting and dividing presbyteries, and of reviewing their decisions and proceedings, subject to an appeal to the General Assembly, which is the ultimate judicatory of the church. It is made up of bishops and elders in equal numbers, delegated by the presbyteries in their corporate capacity. To this body belongs the power of erecting synods, reviewing their decisions and proceedings, deciding controversies of doctrine and discipline, and of reproving, warning and bearing testimony against error in doctrine or immorality in practice, in any church, presbytery or synod. No one can read the constitution without seeing that its framers were well aware of the truth-so firmly settled by the history of the past-that the tendency of power, in church as well as in state, is to abuse. "It grows by what it feeds on," and nothing can secure right and justice but established, known and wise rules of proceeding and the right of appeal. Thus the principles of discipline and the rules of proceeding, devised with singular wisdom, are carefully incorporated into the constitution, protecting the accused against the spirit of party, the blindness of prejudice and the madness of fanaticism. He is first to be heard before his neighbors, if a SECOND SERIES, VOL. I. NO. II. 61
layman, in his own church session; if a clergyman, in his own presbytery. Thence, by appeal, the matter may be carried to the presbytery, the synod, and the General Assembly, bodies increasing in numbers, and more and more remote from the prejudices of the controversy, till it reaches a tribunal selected from all parts of the country, bringing to its decision the freedom and impartiality of strangers.
This system, as will readily be seen, is admirably adapted to extension over a large territory, without losing its unity and connection. In this it differs widely from pure Congregationalisin, which spends its force in a single congregation no larger than can meet in one place and transact business. This deficiency, however, has been in a measure supplied in the Congregational systems of New England, which approach, more or less, in different States, to the Presbyterian form. Especially in the State of Connecticut has the connection and subordination of ecclesiastical representative assemblies given to the Congregational church a form resembling that of the Presbyterian church. The first settlers of New England-the pilgrims-in some prominent points of their church organizations, were Presbyterians. It is not worth while here to inquire how so many of their descendants have come to adopt a more Congregational form. It seems, however, that their organization, in the several States, into conferences, conventions, consociations, etc. formed of clerical and lay delegates, may well be considered as evidence of a fondness for a representative system, capable of extension, and may, in part account for the readiness with which they and the Presbyterians have always united with each other. The Presbyterian constitution adopted in 1788, abounds in the great principles of freedom of opinion and of conscience, of republican simplicity, of order, and of democratic equality of rights and of powers, and the cognate principles of toleration and liberal charity. These, too, were the cherished principles of the New England Congregationalists. This liberal spirit of the two sects enabled the Independents and Congregationalists, in Presbyterian regions, to come under that constitution, and the Presbyterian church was rapidly extended. The General Assembly did not fail to act on the liberal principles it had adopted, and, under the constitutional "power to correspond with foreign churches," joined hands of brotherhood, from time to time, with the other organized sects, by an interchange of delegates, on plans of union. In 1792, with the General Association of Con
necticut; in 1798, with the Reformed Dutch and Associate Reformed churches; in 1801 with the General Association of Connecticut, for the new settlements; in 1802, with the Northern Associated Presbytery; in 1803, with the Convention of Vermont; in 1808, with the Middle Association; in 1810, with the Association of New Hampshire; in 1811, with the Association of Massachusetts; in 1819, another was proposed with the Associate Reformed church, which like the first, was not accepted by them, and in 1821 and 1822, the union with that sect was made complete, by the General Assembly, receiving the whole sect into the bosom of the Presbyterian church, and all the members of its General Synod, then in session, into full membership of the then sitting General Assembly. By these various plans of union the delegates were allowed to act and vote as members of the Assembly; and they were adopted by the respective assemblies, in most if not all of the cases, with entire unanimity; and, having been, most of them, the work of two, and some of three General Assemblies, they can be no less than the result of a characteristic liberal policy of the church. The "Plan of Union for the new settlements," formed in 1801, has acquired an importance which entitles it to more notice. It has been used as a means of dividing the Presbyterian church. In 1801 the frontiers of our rapidly extending settlements, were found to embrace emigrants from Connecticut and other New England States, and from the Presbyterian portions of the country, pioneers in religion, as they were in civilization. The settlements were small and scattered, and received only the occasional ministrations of the gospel and its ordinances from the missionaries that a feeble charity sent to preach in the wilderness. These missionaries were of the two sects. As the faithful were multiplied, it became desirable that pastors should be settled, that there might be, at least here and there, fixed lights for the guidance of the people. Neither sect, however, in most cases, could do anything alone. Their united strength could yield but a scanty support to one self-denying minister of religion, and thus, if neither would yield the point of sectarian preference, the fires could not be kindled on their altars. The subject was represented to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church and the General Association of Connecticut, then being on the most intimate terms of correspondence. These two bodies, to remove the evil above referred to, and to facilitate the spread of the gospel by promoting union and harmony,
adopted four joint recommendations, to the ministers, missionaries and people of the new settlements.
1. The promotion, by all proper means, of mutual forbearance and accommodation.
2.-3. In case minister and people should be of different sects, the preserving, by each party, of its ecclesiastical connection and form of government and discipline, and that difficulties. between ministers and people should be arranged by a sort of arbitration or council, balf of each sect, unless they could agree to submit to the forms of the sect to which the minister belonged.
4. In case of a mixed settlement, they recommended that different views of church government should be no obstacle to their uniting in one church, and settling a pastor-administering the internal discipline by a standing committee of the communicants, with a right of appeal to the presbytery, or to the church, as the accused might be of one sect or the other, the standing committee having the right to be represented in the presbytery when cases of discipline went up on appeal.
This was the "PLAN OF UNION."* It did not provide for the admission of any one into the church or the ministry in violation or neglect of the rules or usages of the sect with which he was united. It recommended no one to give up his own sect, nor to enter that of the other. It only provided substantially that, the pastoral relation might exist between a minister and people of the two sects, without either being guilty of violations of church order. Thus, under the operation of this plan, the Presbyterian minister of a Congregational church and the elder from a Presbyterian church met in the presbytery, and, from the same churches, the Congregational minister and the lay delegate met in the association, and the representation, in both bodies, was complete. As the parties became habituated to the operation of this union, their attachment to the strictness of their sectarian forms must have been weakened in some measure, and, with a broader charity and a kinder toleration, the conviction must have been strengthened that mere form was of little moment, and the parties mutually tended toward each other. The Presbyterians invited their Congregational brethren to sit with them, as corresponding members. They all met together.
The Plan of Union will be found at length in the last July number of the Repository, page 230.