Chapter Eleven - An Abortive Attempt At Reconciliation
In spite of all the divisions and differences of judgment among the people of God there is a most blessed sense in which our Lord’s prayer for His own “that they all may be one” has ever been answered. One in life and in family relationship they are. And because of this precious fact the renewed soul ever longs for the practical display of that unity with fellow-believers.
And, divided though the Brethren became, it has generally been leaders who have kept the sheep in the various separate corrals. Left to themselves they would soon flock together around the one Shepherd. So it becomes a real pleasure to be able to tell of an honest effort on the part of godly leaders toward mutual understanding, though it failed at the time to accomplish what was desired.
The Montreal division took place as we have seen in 1884. A few years later there developed among the so-called Grant Exclusives an uneasy feeling that their attitude toward Open Brethren was not entirely consistent with the position they themselves had been forced into through the operation of tyrannous ecclesiastical principles unwarranted by Scripture. Evangelists and teachers moving about among assemblies frequently came in contact with Christians from the Open meetings whose piety and general soundness in the faith they could not but recognize as being of a very high order. Was it right to go on treating such as wicked persons because they were supposed to be identified by association with something that had occurred in a distant land over forty years ago? A new generation, and even a second, had come on the scene since the unhappy Bethesda division. Was it to be for ever made a test of fellowship?
Both the Grants, Robert and Frederick, were keenly exercised about this, as were many other recognized leaders-both of those wholly given to the ministry of the Word and those having local oversight. Could Scripture-clear-cut definite passages from the Word of God. not hazy deductions labeled “divine principles”-be found to warrant continued exclusion of godly believers Because blessing had come to them through the Word ministered by preachers in the Open, instead of the Exclusive, meetings? The Egyptian could enter into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation. What of fellow-members of Christ’s body, holding similar teaching and walking largely in a similar path? Must they be excluded for ever?
Lord Chesterfield wisely said in one of his “Letters”: “Individuals forgive sometimes, but bodies and societies never do.” Even among Christians this often seems to be true. However, so real were the exercises referred to above that on Oct. 15, 1891, a letter was sent out by the “Grant” leaders to their own assemblies at home and abroad, and to Open Brethren also, inviting all who were interested to come to a general conference to be held in the following year at Plainfield, New Jersey, to consider the questions that separated them.
Even before this there had been much coming and going but without really cementing fellowship. Instead, suspicion was raised as to the integrity of those who, as some put it, “tried to play fast and loose with divine principles.” And often Exclusives found themselves as unwelcome in Open meetings as the Opens were among Exclusives.
However, the letter referred to above was sent out and saints were asked to spend much time in prayer before the proposed conference, which was scheduled to convene in July, 1892. It was felt that there would be great opposition in some quarters and there was a danger of hasty action in others, so in the letter they inserted the following paragraphs:
And now, beloved brethren, the object of this letter is to inform you of this, and at the same time earnestly and affectionately to entreat you to a patient waiting upon God during this interval. . . . We feel constrained, dear brethren, in all love, earnestly to entreat you not to take any hasty or independent action whatever in this connection. Our earnest desire is that we may all look at it together.
The desire was for a happy unanimity of judgment. The letter brought joy to many, but numbers were distrustful. Among Open Brethren, leaders like Donald Ross, Donald Munro, John Smith and others, refused to attend, but drew up a letter declaring their adherence to Scriptural principles and sent it on to the meetings. Mr. J. H. Burridge from Great Britain came to speak for the Open Meetings and many local Brethren from these gatherings attended. Upwards of a thousand brethren, Open and Closed, came together at the appointed time and after ten days of frank brotherly conference the following letter was sent out as giving the judgment of the meeting.
Plainfield, July 12, 1892.
To the Brethren in the Lord whom it concerns: Greeting.
In response to the call sent forth to brethren to assemble here to consider the questions in connection with our relation to (so-called) “open” brethren, a large number came together. We would thankfully recognize the Lord’s grace in enabling us to feel our dependence upon as well as our responsibility to Him, with love also to those that are His people. Several days were devoted to the consideration of the matter from all sides, and free expression of judgment was given. The following conclusions were accepted with great unanimity, for which we give thanks to God.
As to their condition, proofs were given that there is no present association with evil doctrine, and this both from those amongst them and others outside. An authoritative circular from leaders amongst them in this country, agrees with the testimony of some well acquainted with them at Bethesda, Bristol, England, as well as elsewhere, that this is the case.
The “Letter of the Ten” has been, from the time when it was put forth to the present, a main hindrance to communion. In this it was stated that, supposing a teacher “were fundamentally heretical, this would not warrant us in rejecting those who came under his teaching, until we were satisfied that they had understood and imbibed views essentially subversive of foundation-truth.” It is, however, stated by the leaders in Bethesda, “We do not mean that any would be allowed to return to a heretical teacher. He would become subject to discipline by doing so. Our practice proves this. We had no thought of intercommunion with persons coming from a heretical teacher when that sentence was written.” In the same way Mr. Wright’s letter, at a much more recent date, affirming upon the face of it the same principle with the “Letter of the Ten,” has been explained not to mean intercommunion.
We dare not say that we accept these statements as really satisfactory; and there are still others, as in E. K. Groves’ more recent book (“Bethesda Family Matters,” p. 133), which show, to our sorrow, that all among them are not yet clear. Yet the late statement from leaders in this country, accepted by those in Bethesda itself, together with the testimony from all sides as to their actual present condition and practice necessitate our acceptance of the conclusion, in the “love that thinketh no evil,” that looseness in this respect does not now exist. There are doubtless gatherings still “open” in this unhappy way, but from these we have every reason to believe that the brethren to whom we refer are really separate. In this belief, which it is a joy to be permitted to entertain, we shall be able to welcome them among us, as we do other Christians.
We only regret to have to express our inability to go further; the insistence upon certain views of baptism hindering the liberty of the Spirit in ministry, and which becomes thus in our judgment, a grave evil; questions also as to the past still remaining, with other matters of real importance, compel us, at present, to stop here. But we are thankful to be able to go thus far, and to show our sincere desire to take all hindrances to genuine Christian fellowship out of the way, as far as we can justly do it.
In conclusion, we feel for ourselves the necessity of much prayer and patience, and great respect for one another’s consciences, that these desires for unity may not be used by the enemy to foster further division. “Whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing” (Php_3:16). “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (Rom_14:19).
B. C. Greenman,
F. W. Grant,
Some among the Grant Brethren viewed this letter with alarm and felt it was the beginning of what would eventually be a complete surrender to independent principles. Others hailed it with delight as indicating that the divisions would soon come to an end and happy fellowship be enjoyed together. Open Brethren generally felt it did not go far enough and were disappointed. But others among them were grateful to God that it went as far as it did, and hoped it would lead to a better understanding and fuller fellowship in the future.
Some Exclusives felt the decision had been hastily arrived at, forgetting apparently the months of prayer that had preceded it.
In several cities efforts were made to go beyond the circular by combining the Open and Exclusive meetings, but with few exceptions the results were unsatisfactory and the attempt even led to greater distrust of each other. The two classes of Brethren had been apart so long and had been trained in such different schools that they found it hard to lay aside preconceived notions and walk together in the love of the Spirit.
In Great Britain, the Bahamas and New Zealand pronounced opposition developed. Mr. William Rickard, a much respected English brother, editor of Words in Season, a monthly publication of considerable merit, wrote expostulating with American Brethren for their haste in committing themselves to a position which Old Country assemblies could not endorse. I have been unable to find a copy of his letter but its contents can be gathered in great measure from the following lengthy answer which I give in full because of the vast amount of information it contains:
To our brother, mr. rickard, and those Brethren who signed the late Circular with him:
Beloved Brethren: In owning receipt of your letter of Oct. 1st, 1892, and before referring to the main subject therein considered, we would explain that it was through no oversight or carelessness on our part that you were not at once fully and directly informed as to the result of our meeting here on July 12th. Twenty-five copies of our circular were forwarded at once to our brother Blatchley, and must have unaccountably miscarried. We regret that this should have happened; but we trust, dear brethren, that this explanation will show that we had no thought of keeping you “in the dark,” as you speak.
With reference to your next complaint that no “representative brethren of the United Kingdom were present,” we certainly felt quite sure of the fellowship and sympathy of at least one brother, and even up to the last moment expected his presence, which we should sincerely have welcomed; but if we have failed in not making our invitations more general, we can only ask you to forgive us.
Recognizing your right to receive full information and satisfaction as to our action in the recent gathering at Plainfield with regard to our relation with so-called “open” brethren, we desire to give you this to the utmost of our ability, as sincerely desirous of the maintenance of fellowship in truth and holiness.
We do not believe that our principles have changed in any wise. They resolve themselves, as far as we are now concerned with them, into the responsibility to “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”-the living unity of the church of God; therefore in separation from evil, as what destroys this. This separation we hold, as we did before, to be from all fundamental error, as well as moral wickedness, and from those knowingly in association with these. Upon this ground, we had refused those in fellowship with open brethren, as “open” to receive from gatherings infected with false doctrine. And this was, as to those so-called in America, most certainly true that they were so in the past.
But a change has come with the advent of certain evangelists and leaders, principally from Scotland, who disclaim having ever been upon this loose ground. The old gatherings were either repudiated or purged from the evil, and others sprang up, and are springing up in various places, with which the old and Scriptural test failed to show evil. The question was raised, and more and more pressed upon us, how could we maintain the old attitude toward those who, while still called “open brethren,” were in fact another people from those formerly known as such.
But there was still a link that remained, as we believed, with evil, not here, but in England,-the link with Bethesda,-a name of distress and reproach among us for many years, and as to which we believed we had recent testimony of unsoundness, above all in Mr. Wright’s letter. This for a time held us back from any general clearing, even of these newly formed gatherings, from the charge of complicity with evil.
We are now, however, in a different position. First of all, we have a statement, concurred in by a number of their leaders in America, expressly repudiating fellowship with those in association with evil. Then, a letter from D. D. Chrystal, formerly in our own fellowship, as to Bethesda’s present position being in accordance with this. Of another from Col. Molesworth to the same effect we have no copy. Another statement from forty-eight leaders of the open brethren in England, extracted from “What are the Facts?” published by Hawkins of London, is not perhaps so explicit, but still repudiates “all identification with unsound doctrine” such as they name. Another testimony was given by a brother, J. H. Burridge, from among them, present at the meeting, who assured us that he had personally inquired into the looseness charged against them in W. K.’s tract, and found that the meeting in question was not in fellowship. A letter from our brother, W. Scott, also read at the conference, acquits them of any present fellowship with evil. All that we know as to America agrees with this.
The explanation of the “Letter of the Ten” was unsatisfactory, and many of us were unable to believe that it could be rightfully interpreted as not meaning inter-communion; but the “pastors and elders” who gave the interpretation to “Philadel-phos” (Mr. Bewley) were not perhaps any of those who had written the letter. Mr. Wright’s, of later date than either, showed clearly to us remains of the old spirit, and yet was taken by them with the same reserve, that there could be no inter-communion with heretical meetings. As to their practice, they invite personal visitation and examination on the part of some accredited persons; and in all this, however evident it may be that the old failure has not been judged as one desires, yet it is clear that the mercy of God has come in, and the evil is not there in present activity. In individuals, it may not be repented of; but as a body, even in Bethesda itself, the open brethren are committed against fellowship with evil; and it surely should be a “joy” to believe that this is so.
Can we accept this testimony! How is it possible to refuse it? It is not merely their own, but that of others as to them. They give it openly, challenging examination. You, beloved brethren, do not show that it is false. And, indeed, who ever heard of a large body of Christians, numbers of them allowed to be most earnest and devoted, putting forth as their principles and practice what all amongst them must know to be false and deceptive? We might well lose faith in the power of the gospel over men’s hearts and lives if this could be. Does the Lord require us to go behind this? Is not sufficient witness to be received? And this is the witness of thousands practically, who by their silence at least agree with it. Are we not bound in the “love that thinketh no evil,” to receive it?
The blot upon the past can scarcely now be removed. It may be turned even to profit, if it rebuked the Pharisaism so tending to rise up, and which has, we must fear, sadly marred our own later history. May not God even thus make the last first? And are we to refuse, on account of a blot like this, Christians personally as godly as any, who were not themselves implicated in the Bethesda trouble, and whose principles and practice, as regards this attitude toward evil, are as pure as our own? Is it not to be sectarian to do so?
Does this reception of individuals mean that of the whole? It is said they are on the ground of the one body, and so we have no option! Some of themselves most earnestly deny that they are on the ground of the one body, and this principle has been stamped by a leader among them as the first “heresy” into which those who leave them for the “exclusives” fall, the second being household baptism. Would that they could show us, or that they cared to show us, that they are not rather a Baptist body with at least independent principles, though more or less “open” as to communion! But they are brethren-children of God, as we, to whom our hearts should quicken as such, and who are making a firm stand now against the false doctrines and unbelief at present so fearfully spreading; and if compared with other Christians round about, we shall find them nearer to us than any outside of the other bodies of so-called “brethren,” which, to the loss and shame of all, are broken asunder from one another. Should it not be “joy” to us to be able, by recognizing the change referred to in our brethren, to get back to the simple ground on which we once were, and to find a path which will not turn even the feet of the lame out of the way? Should it not be “joy” to be able rightfully to throw down any existing barriers to fellowship among those who once were united, and to say, “Brethren, the sin shall not be ours of dividing the body of Christ: let us walk the rest of the way together”?
In all this, we do not believe that we are giving up principles. Perhaps the Lord is teaching us more that, after all, we are in days of ruin, and that, as those self-judged before him, we must carry those out in tenderness and grace more than we have done. Of some amid dead Sardis the Lord Himself says, “They have not defiled their garments.” How is it that, with us, just those spiritually nearest akin to us are those who, in the breaches that have taken place, are to be most religiously refused and turned away from? May He turn our hearts to one another, and Judah vex Ephraim no more! What a promise of blessing yet for us would be in this!
Show us, however, that the open brethren are not what they profess to be-that they do, in principle as well as in practice, let in evil,-then, with whatever pain, we shall be compelled to retrace our steps. Show us gatherings acknowledged as in fellowship with Bethesda, Bristol, which are in this way guilty, not of mistake and failure, but of willful wickedness of this kind, and from which they will not purge themselves, and you will have done us essential service, for which we shall be most thankful. If these cannot be found, how can we be leavened by contact with that which, according to the best judgment we can make of it is not itself leavened?
And this brings us, beloved brethren, to your closing sentences, in which you pronounce “judgment” and “condemnation” upon us for what you term “a new departure,” and which you tell us is a “dishonor to Christ,” a “denial of the truth of the one body,” “another secession from the true ground of the church of God.” Solemn words! and although of late years, we fear, far too frequently and lightly spoken, still such as can never be heard by any to whom “the light of his countenance is better than life,” and who know, too, something of their own feebleness, without serious consideration and heart-searching. But if they are not lightly to be heard, even far less are they to be lightly spoken; and awful indeed must be the error, grave indeed the sin, that could justify your charging us with dishonoring our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, with denying the truth of the one body, with seceding from the ground of the church of God! Surely nothing less than our hands joined with corrupt doctrine or evil practice,-some willful association with wickedness by which we have become wicked and corrupt. Is there a word in your letter to show this? No, you do not; and, in the fear of God, we say you cannot find grounds for such charges against your brethren. Instead of this, you reason in this way: -
(a) “Here is a sentence, written nearly fifty years ago, involving a wicked principle of association with evil.”
(b) “This has never been repudiated, withdrawn, or even modified.”
(c) “You, in opening the door of fellowship to any who are in any way connected with the gathering where this sentence was written, partake of the evil it embodies, and-we cannot follow you.”
This reasoning, dear brethren, is not only weak, but false. Your conclusion depends upon your premises, and if the latter be incorrect, the former must necessarily be so too. The principle of evil association involved in the sentence quoted from the “Letter of the Ten” has been repudiated again and again, as we have shown you above. Even your own quotation-”We do not mean that any would be allowed to return to a heretical teacher. He would become subject to discipline by doing so,” etc.-is sufficient to show how wrong is your statement that it has not been “even modified.” Surely, but a very little measure of the love that “thinketh no evil,” that “believeth all things, that hopeth all things,” would see a very important modification, at least, in these words, and we would venture, as brethren, to press this a little upon you. But in our judgment, it speaks even more than simple modification; and, when we remember that it is now forty-five years since the original letter was penned, and that leaven must from its nature, have spread through and through Bethesda, and far and wide in those connected with her, in that time, surely you can have no difficulty in showing us clear proof of this;-if not, (and we can speak with some authority for this side, that you cannot,) is it not again proof that your statement that “it has never been repudiated or even modified” is incorrect?
Upon better consideration, therefore, we may trust that you will find the judgment you pronounce as to this matter to have been at least premature, and will be happy in withdrawing it. Give us only the proof of present evil sanctioned by those whom our circular simply restores to the common rights of Christians, and we will be with you heartily in the judgment of it. Apart from this, to cut off the members of Christ’s body, would not this be really to secede from the ground of the church of God, and grieve and dishonor Him whose prayer for His own is, “that they all may be one”?
With true love in Him, believe us, dear brethren, ever yours in bonds that cannot be broken-
Signed,- In behalf of the gathering at
G. H. Graham, New York
Edward G. Mauger,
H. E. Lampe, South Brooklyn.
Paul S. Cohn,
S. Northworthy, Rutherford, New Jersey.
F W. Grant, Passaic, New Jersey.
T. O. Loizeaux,
J. T. McFall, Plainfield, New Jersey.
John F. Gray,
John F. Gilmore, East Brooklyn.
Writing about the same time to some in the Bahamas who were troubled, Mr. F. W. Grant pertinently said:
What could we do but withdraw charges we believed no longer truthful? Surely there was no alternative if we would retain uprightness ourselves. Our brethren who reject the circular cannot (we believe) put their finger upon one gathering today in admitted fellowship with Bethesda, Bristol, and which is “open” to receive fundamental evil. Certainly they do not attempt it. If the thing were true, it could hardly help being (at the present time) notorious. A door is not long left open for evil without evil being found to enter in at the door.
But our brethren urge that as to the past, Bethesda has not cleared herself. We wish much we could say that in our belief she had, but we have not been able to say this. We fear there are those connected with her at this day that are not clear; and that the original false step never has been openly judged we know. But that was taken a generation since; and the principles involved being refused by them today, the mass cannot be charged with that with which they had nothing to do, and which in any evil sense of it they do not uphold. All agree that there are among open brethren thousands of godly souls. Is it of God to cut off wholesale these godly ones? Surely, surely, Scripture cannot be produced for this.
This is all plain and distinct, and seems to be the utterance of one who had thoroughly investigated the whole matter and was clear before God as to his course.
Some will be amazed to learn that inside of a year afterwards, not only Mr. Grant, but many of the others, who signed the letter to Mr. Rickard, had completely reversed themselves. What led to this will be taken up in the next chapter.