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The Last New Lights: The New Brunswick Free Christian Baptists, 1832 - 1905 (chapter 3)

The Last New Lights: The New Brunswick Free Christian Baptists, 1832 - 1905 (chapter 3)



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Published by Paul Kimball

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Published by: Paul Kimball on Mar 10, 2010
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Chapter Three
In the year following Confederation, despite the loss of their leader, the optimism of theFree Christian Baptist reformers continued to grow. They believed that they lived in “anage of great activities” characterized by “energy and progress.” To the reformers, Godwas the author of both “revelation [and] science.Advances in travel andcommunications technology had almost “annihilated time and space,” so that peopleand countries once separated by great distances had been brought within “whisperingdistance” of each other. “Never,” wrote George A. Hartley in his report to the annualmeeting of the denomination in 1868, “were the natural sciences applied with so greatsuccess, and so prolific of good results.”
It was, however, most certainly the inventivematerial science of the industrial revolution that Hartley referred to, and not thetheoretical science of Darwin, which they largely continued to ignore, even though theywere well aware of the anti-Christian implications inherent in the new doctrine of evolution. The reformers embraced a world view that promoted a cautious and reverentapplication of scientific reason in order to better understand God’s will and purpose.Knowledge, obtained through careful inductive reasoning, and closely linked to piety,was the ideal method for the development of a sound theology that confirmed God asthe source and man as the subject.
 This belief in progress encompassed a series of religious ideas that saw the handiworkof spiritual forces behind improvement in secular life. “The Gospel [is] the one thingneedful,” wrote Hartley, “for the world’s proper civilization.”
The reformers continued tospeak of the need to advance, and of the dangers of hesitation in what to them was a“transitional” age, full of trials and changes that called for “brave and earnest men whowill rally around the standard of truth.As the prosperity and influence of thedenomination and its individual members continued to rise, they maintained, their responsibilities were increasing “in exact ratio thereto.” Tilley recalled the words of apsalm, “He shall have dominion from sea to sea,” to speak of the new country of Canada, and the reformers were convinced that the great task of the latter half of thenineteenth century would be the cultivation of a Christian character for the new nation.In these beliefs they demonstrated their acceptance of underlying principles of thebroader evangelical society, possessed of a pervasive sense of national righteousnessthat provided inspiration for renewed moral and spiritual crusades.
It was a religion notof frontier revivals but of a settled, commercial and urbanizing population that sought tore-establish the connection between piety and reason in a society where the religionbased solely upon experience and ‘feeling’ appeared to growing numbers to lack theauthority it once had.
Knowledge provided a rational basis for what had traditionallybeen an experiential religion. It was an outlook that was founded on Christian reasonand recognized the supremacy of the Bible and theology.While the evidence of progress in the world around them was encouraging, theproblems that continued to confront the reformers within their own denominationprovided them with a sobering reminder that not all Free Christian Baptists were asenthusiastic about the future as they were. This fact was made immediately apparent tothem in 1868 with the response of the churches to the thorough circuit system plan that
had been proposed the year before by a committee that included both reformers andtraditionalists. In 1867 a circular was sent to each church asking that the congregationdecide whether they would participate in the system and, if so, how much money theywould pledge for yearly pastoral labour. The returns revealed yet again the deep rootedambivalence among many Free Christian Baptists towards aspects of the reformagenda that they believed would fundamentally alter the character of the ministry or diminish the religion of experience. They also gave a public indication for the first timeof the extent of the resistance throughout the denomination.The First District, located primarily in Victoria County, did not send any statistics. Of thetwenty-five churches in the Second District, centred in Carleton County, only ninedecided in favour of the circuit system, and of those only six stated how much moneythey would raise. In the Third District, which extended from Woodstock to Fredericton,only four of eighteen churches reported in favour of the system, six were opposed andten did not voice any opinion. The Fourth District, which extended down the Saint JohnRiver from Saint John to Upper Hampstead, contained ten churches, of which onlythree voted in favour of the system. Three voted against its adoption, and four voicedno opinion. Of the twenty churches in the Fifth District, only six took any action on thequestion of the circuit system, with two in favour and four opposed. The Sixth District,like the First, did not provide statistics upon which a report could be made. Finally, theSeventh District, with nine churches extending from Saint John along the coast toGrand Manan, reported only three churches in favour of the system, with the other sixagainst.
The totals indicated that of those churches which expressed an opinion, themajority were against the circuit system. Even more, aware of the controversy thatwould result in the congregation from a discussion of the issue, simply ignored therequests of the Conference and refused to take any action.The reaction of the leading reformers was to ascribe the setback to the unclear wordingof the circular which was sent to the churches. According to McLeod, they thought that“if it had been a little fuller it would have been more favourably received.”
Hartleyechoed these sentiments when he reported from the Sixth District meeting that themajority of the churches “could not understand really what the ‘Circular’ meant.” Heconcluded that it was “regrettable that the writer of that Circular did not take pains tomake it intelligible, so that the intentional wishes of the Conference might be known andunderstood.”
The circular, however, was drafted by reformers themselves and wasquite explicit when it asked the churches:...to decide at a public meeting, first, if it will adopt the system; andsecondly, what amount it will pledge for the desired pastoral labour and care. The decision of the church, whether favorable or unfavorable, to be reported by the Clerk at the next session of theDistrict Meeting of which it is a member.
There can be little doubt that the churches were well aware of exactly what it was theywere to vote on, particularly as the proposed circuits were all detailed in the publishedminutes of the annual General Conference.
The reasons given for the failure of the
proposal by reformers such as McLeod and Hartley, therefore, were attempts to explainaway an obvious defeat. They knew that the rejection of the circuit system was wellthought-out and carefully considered.
Despite the rejection of the circuit system, however, the reformers continued their promotion of progressive evangelical causes. One such issue that had broad appealthroughout the denomination was sabbatarianism. When the General Conference firstconsidered the issue in 1856, its emphasis was on the personal responsibility of theindividual to ensure the observance of the Sabbath. However, for the first time they alsorecognized the role of government in preventing the secularization of the Sabbath. “Agovernment without a Sabbath,” the Conference concluded, “cannot be more religiousthan an individual without one.” The Conference regretted “exceedingly” that “the lawsfor the better observance of the Lord’s-day are not more rigidly enforced, and thatexamples for the violation of these laws are sometimes found among those whose dutyit is to execute them.”
In 1859 the Conference expressed its approval of the actions of the government, particularly George Connell, the Postmaster General. Connell, aMethodist from Woodstock who regularly contributed to the Free Christian BaptistGeneral Conference fund, was singled out by the Conference for his efforts in “stoppingSunday labor in that department over which he presides.”
Ironically, it was the veryinstruments of progress that the reformers championed, such as railways and faster,more comfortable boats, that made it easier for people to travel, and thus increasedtheir opportunities for visiting and travelling on Sunday. Likewise, as printing pressesbecame more widespread, and publishing less expensive, so too did the opportunitiesfor people to spend Sundays reading “trashy literature” instead of the Bible.In fact, the new conditions of capitalism - the growth of business combined withimproved transportation and communication - imposed increasing strains upon thechurches in dealing with the problem of Sabbath desecration. As with temperance,however, the churches found allies for Sabbath observance in businessmen whosought to secure greater order within the competitive system. Lobbying for Sabbathobservance also represented an effort to blunt the edge of capitalist rivalry by providingat least one day of rest in seven. Its promotion secured, therefore, the support of powerful economic interests.
Reformers like Rev. Parsons saw the “physical andmental exhaustion” that resulted from “push[ing] the affairs of a busy week up to thevery portals of the Sabbath” as detrimental to “the preparation requisite for theenjoyment of the blessings of the sanctuary.”
To the capitalists in their congregations,like Fredericton lumber merchant and politician John Pickard, it was bad for business.
Spiritual and economic interests were thus intertwined.
It was another indication of theincreasing infusion of the values of mainstream evangelicalism into Free ChristianBaptist practice and belief.The failure of the reformers yet again to implement a circuit system, however,combined with the continued general lack of support for education and ministerialtraining, led to a number of editorials in the Religious Intelligencer pleading with FreeChristian Baptists to continue their support of those aspects of the reform agendaalready in place, and to change their minds on the others. One in particular stands out

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