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Denominationalism as a Basis for Ecumenicity: A Seventeenth Century Conception*

  • Winthrop S. Hudson (a1)

The use of the word “denomination” to describe a religious group came into vogue during the early years of the Evangelical Revival. Typical of the mood which gave currency to the new term are John Wesley's oft-quoted words; “I … refuse to be distinguished from other men by any but the common principles of Christianity⃜ I renounce and detest all other marks of distinction. But from real Christians, of whatever denomination, I earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all⃜ Dost thou love and fear God? It is enough! I give thee the right hand of fellowship.” The word “denomination” was adopted by the leaders of the Evangelical Revival, both in England and America, because it was a neutral term which carried with it no implication of a negative value judgment.

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1. Wesley, John, The Character of a Methodist; reprinted in The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, 4th ed. (London, 1841), VIII, 332–33.

2. While the word “denomination” does not appear to have taken on a technical meaning to denote a religious body much before the 1740's, it was used occasionally as early as the 1640's by John Goodwin. See Goodwin, John, Theomachia (London, 1644), p. 23, and Hagiomastix (London, 1646), preface, and p. 40. The earlier equivalent of the word “denomination,” which was used by the seventeenth century divines, was the word “way.” They would speak of those of the Episcopal Way, the Presbyterial Way, and the Congregational Way.

3. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Allen, John (Philadelphia, n. d.), I, 34.

4. Bradshaw, William, The Unreasonableness of the Separation (n. p., 1640), pp. 1213.

5. An Apologetical Narration (London, 1643), p. 9.

6. Conformity's Deformity (London, 1646), p. 9.

7. Goodwin, Thomas and Nye, Philip in preface to John Cotton, The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (London, 1644).

8. An Apologetical Narration, pp. 3–4. The elders of the churches in New England made much the same point with regard to their situation in the New World. “In these remote coasts of the earth whereunto the good hand of God hath brought us …, we have seen cause to look back to our former administrations … and to search and try our ways that wherein soever we have formerly gone astray, we might judge ourselves for it before the Lord. And that seeing now God hath set before us an open door of Liberty, we might neither abuse our liberty in the gospel to run out into any groundless unwarrantable conrses nor neglect the present opportunity to administer (by the help of Christ) all the holy ordinances of God according to the pattern set before us in Scripture. In our native country … many of us … bare [some things] as burdens, that is, as things inexpedient though not utterly unlawful, [that] we have no cause to retain and practice … here, [where they] would have been not only inexpedient but unlawful. Such things as a man may tolerate when he cannot remove them, he cannot tolerate without sin when he may remove them.” A Letter of Many Ministers in Old England Requesting the Jndgment of their Reverend Brethren in New England, together with their Answer thereunto (London, 1643).

9. An Apologetical Narration, pp. 9–10.

10. Ibid., pp. 10–11.

11. Op. cit.

12. The Saints' Apology (London, 1644), p. 14.

13. A Survey of the Sum of Church Discipline (London, 1648), preface. John Cook was to describe an Independent as “ever privy to his own infirmities, being far from dreaming of perfection in this life … He thinks himself the greatest sinner, being most privy to the deceitfulness of his own heart and is sure he bath more errors than he can discern.” What the Independents Would Have (London, 1647), p. 4. The author of A Moderate Answer to Mr. Prynne's Full Reply (London, 1645), p. 38, affirmed: “As for onr parts, we are far from such a thought that we know all things in the Word about church government but that more of it may still be revealed, and we daily search and wait for more knowledge in it.”

14. “This we both have done and yet further are able to do, to prove our way with all our practices in every particular ont of God's Word, which yon are not able to do for any one of your practices, much less for the whole way of your classical presbytery.” Conformity's Deformity, p. 9.

15. The Assembly complained of the Dissenting Brethren that they never endeavored “to prove that way of church government which they practice to be the only way jure divino.” The Answer of the Assembly of Divines (London, 1645), p. 4. Thomas Edwards also had complained that in the view of the Independents “the government and way of the church visible is so uncertain and doubtful as that little or none may be positively laid down and concluded as jure divino.” Antapologia (London, 1644), p. 85. The Dissenting Brethren freely acknowledged that this was true, saying that “the greatest difference … betwixt us being this, that the forms of government you pretend to (and we deny) are asserted to be jure divino.” A Copy of a Remonstrance (London, 1645), p. 5.

16. The Independency on Scripturcs of the Independency of Churches (London, 1643), preface. The Independents pointed out again and again that this was the major point at issue.

17. Cook, John, What the Indepeadents Would Have, p. 2.

18. The Answer of the Assembly of Divines, p. 17.

19. A Confession and Protestation of the Faith of Certain Christians (n.p., 1616).

20. Irenicum (London, 1646), p. 97.

21. Ibid., pp. 237–40.

22. The Unreasonableness of the Separation, pp. 9–10.

23. Ibid., pp. 242–45. Some years before, Praisegod Barebones had made the same point. “Unity or oneness of mind among the godly is an excellent thing and greatly to be desired, so it be in the truth; but God, that of his infinite wisdom causeth good to come out of evil, causeth much profit to attend the variations of his servants. The truth is the more sought into and discovered and cometh to shine forth more fully afterward⃜ It were much to be desired that persons would not be so much offended about the differences and variation there are in matters of religion and the service of God, if they would consider that great darkness had for a long time attended the world…, so as men coming out into the light see men like trees, as the proverb is. And again would mind how great oneness and agreement there is in those that differ, agreeing in the main points. … And then, on the other side, would consider how that the differences among the godly are of inferior kind, being only for the most part about outward worship and the right way of serving God, wherein if any do err …, his error cannot reach another in way of prejudice or hurt⃜ I say, if persons did but mind such like things, it would greatly abate of the prejudice that many have in their minds touching this matter …, for, indeed, it must needs be a great weakness of mind and want of judgment to be so highly displeased as some are with variety of judgments among men in matters of religion⃜ It is most certain that it is better there should be differences among men than that crass ignorance should take its place.” A Discourse tending to Prove … that the Baptism of Infants or Children is Warrantable and Agreeable to the Word of God (London, 1642), preface.

24. Hagiomastix, preface. Hooker, Thomas in the preface to A Survey of the Sum of Church Discipline and Jeremiah Burroughes in his Irenicum (pp. 244–45) both make a similar application of Daniel 12:4.

25. Op. cit., preface.

26. Op. cit., preface.

27. Redintegratio Amoris (London, n. d.), pp. 4041. Not even the members of the Westminster Assembly, godly as they are and seeking the guidance of God's Spirit as they do, make any claim that “they are privileged with the privilege of infallibility.” Ibid.

28. Theomachia, pp. 43–44.

29. Goodwin, John, Twelve Considerable Serious Cautions Very Necessary to Be Observed in … a Reformation according to the Word of God (London, 1646), p. 8.

30. Irenicum, p. 97. A Vindication of Mr. Burroughes (London, 1648), pp. 17, 30.

31. Ibid., p. 14.

32. Cook, John, Redintegratio Amoris, p. 60.

33. Saltmarsh, John, Groans for Liberty (London, 1646), p. 24.

34. An Apologetical Narration, pp. 24–27.

35. Irenicum, pp. 209, 242.

36. Ibid., p. 215.

37. Ibid., pp. 92, 207. A sixteenth century Anglican divine had said: “It is not enough for you to say that you believe as the church of your heart what thing it is that the church believeth. Your faith must not be grounded upon any other man's faith.” “Believe not the doctrine because I or any other preacher doth preach it unto you; but believe it to be true because your own faith doth assure you it to be true.” Hudson, W. S., John Ponet: Advocate of Limited Monarchy (Chicago, 1942), p. 41. This conventional Protestant conviction was a point the Independents repeatedly emphasized. John Goodwin, for example, insisted: “Ministers ought not to require their people to believe anything (much less everything) which they teach, unless they have a reason and ground for it. … Neither ought men to receive or subscribe unto with the hand of their faith the determination or decretals of synods, councils, or assemblies of persons of what capacity or worth soever in matters of religion, unless they have a sufficient reason or ground from the Word of God for what they do receive in this kind. … [Therefore], men ought to make use of, yea, and engage to the uttermost, their reasons or their discursive abilities in all matters of faith and religion whatsoever, and not to swallow anything by a loose credulity but to look narrowly upon everything with the eye of reason before they receive it by the hand of faith.” Hagiomastix, p. 108.

38. Irenicum, p. 256.

39. Goodwin, Thomas, The Great Interest of States and Kingdoms (London, 1646), pp. 53, 56.

40. Cook, John, What the Independents Would Have, p. 14.

41. Irenicum, p. 107.

42. Goodwin, John, Theomachia, p. 30.

43. Irenicum, p. 107. “That Way which shall be able to out-reason, not that which shall out-club, all other Ways will at last exalt unity and be itself exalted by gathering in all other Ways unto it.” Theomachia, p. 30.

44. Irenicum, p. 255.

45. Ibid., pp. 101, 102.

46. Ibid., preface: A Vindication of Mr. Burroughes, p. 2. This is a consistent note throughout the Independent literature. Thus the New England ministers had written: “We separate from the corruptions which we conceive to be left in your churches …, [but] as for yourselves, we are as far from separating as from no visible Christians as that you are, under God, in our hearts … to live and die together. And we look at sundry of you as men of that eminent growth in Christianity that if there be any visible Christians under heaven, amongst you are the men.” A Letter of Many Ministers in Old England Requesting the Judgment of their Reverend Brethren in New England.

47. Burton, Henry, A Vindication of those Churches Commonly Called Independent, p. 56. The Congregational Way, John Goodwin affirmed, “seeketh not … the molestation, harm, or disturbance of any … that are contrary-minded to it. It thinketh no evil, it speaketh no evil of such. If it conceives them upright and faithful with God and Jesus Christ, it embraceth them with all love, tenderness, and honor as partakers of like preious faith with itself, and nothing doubts but that they serve and worship God with as much sincerity and singleness of heart, and are accordingly accepted by him in their Way as itself.” Theomachia, p. 27.

48. Irenicum, pp. 102, 171. “All believers who live in a place together ought, so far as they can, to join into one church, though they be of differing judgments and tempers.” Thus, “where men may communicate without sin,” they “must not separate from a church, though there be corruption in it, to gather into a new church which may be more pure and in some respects more comfortable. … There would be no continuance in church fellowship if this were admitted, for what church is so pure …, but within a while another church will be more pure? … You are bound to give so much respect to the church as to continue with much long-suffering to seek the good of that church, to remove the sin that is upon it with all the means you can. You must bear much with a brother; much more with a church.” On the other hand, “where a man cannot have his soul edified in some ordinances and truths of great moment, which that church whereof he now is shall deny and is in great danger of being seduced to evil, he may depart from the church to another, if he does it orderly, and not be guilty at all of schism. Love to God and his own soul is the cause of this; not want of love to his brethren.” To hold otherwise would be to maintain that “the Christians gathering themselves out of the Jewish church were schismatics,” as would also be true of many during the time of the Reformation. Ibid., pp. 162–63, 173–76.

49. A Vindication of Mr. Burroughes, p. 14.

50. Ibid., pp. 14–15.

51. Ibid., p. 15. This same point was made by the author of The Saints' Apology, “a year or two before this Parliament began.” “Suppose a congregation in this land, some town or parish (to speak common road language) wherein a company of godly men (Saints all, so far as man can judge) had united themselves together by mutual covenant to walk in all the ordinances and ways of the Lord. … If, finding this society and their course fully to answer the persuasion of my heart concerning the way of God, I should change my habitation and take a house in that town that I might thereby join myself to this company in church fellowship …, there would be no complaining, no cry of separation, no whispering and muttering of forsaking mother church. … And yet, I should come out thereby from holding external communion with another⃜ And should I or others do any more but the same thing if in one street of a town we should join ourselves together in communion for spiritual ends and separate ourselves from the external communion which is held in another …, and all this without breaking off from internal communion with any Saint amongst them. … Whereunto, then, serveth the raising of so much noise and clamor of separation but to give up friends into the hands of enemies.” The Saints' Apology, pp. 13–14.

52. Irenicum, pp. 164–65.

53. Theomachia, pp. 25–26.

54. A Vindication of Mr. Burroughes, p. 15.

55. An Apologetical Narration, pp. 7, 25. Henry Burton, A Vindication of those Churches Commonly Called Independent, p. 31. John Goodwin wrote of the Independents: “It is a main principle and maxim in this Way to hold terms of love and Christian correspondence with all persons of what judgment soever in point of [church] government, if they be godly, as well as with her own children.” Theomachia, p. 31.

56. Irenicum, pp. 101, 107–08.

57. Editorial in Istina, commenting on the theme of the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches, quoted in Ecumenical Fellowship Notes of the American Baptist Convention, October, 1954, p. 2.

* Read at a session of the American Society of Church History in New York City, December 29, 1954.

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Church History
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