Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
A sect of Protestants, so called from their maintaining that each congregation of Christians which meet in one house for public worship is a complete church; has sufficient power to act and perform every thing relating to religious government within itself; and is in no respect subject or accountable to other churches. Though the Episcopalians contend that there is not a shadow of the independent discipline to be found either in the Bible or the primitive church, the Independents, on the contrary, believe that it is most clearly to be deduced from the practice of the apostles in planting the first churches.
See CHURCH CONGREGATIONAL, and EPISCOPACY. The Independents, however, were not distinguished as a body till the time of queen Elizabeth. The hierarchy established by that princess in the churches of her dominions, the vestments worn by the clergy in the celebration of divine worship, the book of Common Prayer, and, above all, the sign of the cross used in the administration of baptism, were very offensive to many of her subjects, who, during the persecutions of the former reign, had taken refuge among the Protestants of Germany and Geneva.
These men thought that the church of England resembled in too many particulars the anti-christian church of Rome: they therefore called perpetually for a more thorough reformation, and a purer worship. From this circumstance they were stigmatized with the general name of Puritans, as the followers of Novatian had been in the ancient church.
See NOVATIANS. Elizabeth was not disposed to comply with their demands; and it is difficult to say what might have been the issue of the contest, had the Puritans been united among themselves, in sentiments, views, and measures. But the case was quite otherwise; that large body, composed of persons of different ranks, characters, opinions, and intentions, and unanimous in nothing but their anitpathy to the established church, was all of a sudden divided into a variety of sects. Of these, the most famous was that which was formed about the year 1581, by Robert Brown, a man insinuating in his manners, but unsteady and inconsistent in his views and notions of men and things. Brown was for dividing the whole body of the faithful into separate societies or congregations; and maintained that such a number of persons as could be contained in an ordinary place of worship ought to be considered as a church, and enjoy all the rights and privileges that are competent to an ecclesiastical community.
These small societies he pronounced independent, jure divino, and entirely exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop, in whose hand the court had placed the reins of a spiritual government; and also from that of presbyters and synods, which the Puritans regarded as the supreme visible sources of ecclesiastical authority. But as we have given an account of the general opinions and discipline of the Brownists, we need not enumerate them here, but must beg the reader to refer to that article. The zeal with which Brown and his associates maintained and propagated his notions, was, in a high degree, intemperate and extravagant. He affirmed that all communion was to be broken off with those religious societies that were founded upon a different plan from his; and treated more especially the church of England as a spurious church, whose ministers were unlawfully ordained; whose discipline was popish and anti- christian; and whose sacraments and institutions were destitute of all efficacy and virtue. His followers not being able to endure the severe treatment which they met with from an administration that was not distinguished for its mildness and indulgence, retired into the Netherlands, and founded churches at Middlebourg, Amsterdam, and Leyden.
Their founder, however, returned into England, renounced his principles of separation, and took orders in the established church. The Puritan exiles, whom he thus abandoned, disagreed among themselves, were split into parties, and their affairs declined from day to day. This engaged the wiser part of them to mitigate the severity of their founder's plan, and to soften the rigour of his uncharitable decisions. The person who had the chief merit of bringing about this reformation was one of their pastors, of the name of Robinson; a man who had much of the solemn piety of the times, and no inconsiderable portion of learning. this well-meaning reformer, perceiving the defects that reigned in the discipline of Brown, and in the spirit and temper of his followers, employed his zeal and diligence in correcting them, and in new-modelling the society in such a manner, as to render it less odious to his adversaries, and less liable to the just censure of those true Christians who look upon charity as the end of the commandments. Hitherto the sect had been called Brownists; but Robinson having in his apology affirmed that all Christian congregations were so many independent religious societies, that had a right to be governed by their own laws, independent of any farther or foreign jurisdiction, the sect was henceforth called Independents, of which the apologist was considered as the founder.
The first Independent or Congregational church in England was established by a Mr. Jacob, in the year 1616. Mr. Jacob, who had fled from the persecution of bishop Bancroft, going to Holland, and having imparted his design of getting up a separate congregation, like those in Holland, to the most learned Puritans of those times, it was not condemned as unlawful, considering there was no prospect of a national reformation. Mr. Jacob, therefore, having summoned several of his friends together, and having obtained their consent to unite in church fellowship for enjoying the ordinances of Christ in the purest manner, they laid the foundation of the first independent church in England in the following way. Having observed a day of solemn fasting and prayer for a blessing upon their undertaking, towards the close of the solemnity, each of them made an open confession of their faith in Christ; and then, standing together, they joined hands, and solemnly covenanted with each other, in the presence of Almighty God to walk together in all God's ways and ordinances, according as he had already revealed, or should farther make known to them. Mr. Jacob was then chosen pastor by the suffrage of the brotherhood; and others were appointed to the office of deacons, with fasting and prayer, and imposition of hands.
The Independents were much more commendable than the Brownists; they surpassed them, both in the moderation of their sentiments, and in the order of their discipline. They did not, like Brown, pour forth bitter and uncharitable invectives against the churches which were governed by rules entirely different from theirs, nor pronounce them, on that account, unworthy of the Christian name. On the contrary, though they considered their own form of ecclesiastical government as of divine institution, and as originally introduced by the authority of the apostles, nay, by the apostles themselves, they had yet candour and charity enough to acknowledge, that true religion and solid piety might flourish in those communities which were under the jurisdiction of bishops, or the government of synods and presbyteries. They were also much more attentive than the Brownists in keeping on foot a regular ministry in their communities; for, while the latter allowed promisquously all ranks and orders of men to teach in public, the Independents had, and still have, a certain number of ministers, chosen respectively by the congregations where they are fixed; nor is it common for any person among them to speak in public before he has submitted to a proper examination of his capacity and talents, and been approved of by the heads of the congregation. From 1642, the Independents are very frequently mentioned in the English annals. The charge alleged against them by Rapin (in his history of England, vol. 2: p. 514. folio ed.) that they could not so much as endure ordinary ministers in the church, &c. is groundless. He was led into this mistake by confounding the Independents with the Brownists.
Other charges, no less unjustifiable, have been urged against the Independents by this celebrated historian, and others. Rapin says, that they abhorred monarchy, and approved of a republican government: this might have been true with regard to many persons among them, in common with other sects; but it does not appear, from any of their public writings, that republican principles formed their distinguishing characteristic; on the contrary, in a public memorial drawn up by them in 1647, they declare, that they do not disapprove of any form of civil government, but do freely acknowledge that a kingly government, bounded by just and wholesome laws, is allowed by God, and also a good accommodation unto men. The Independents, however, have been generally ranked among the regicides, and charged with the death of Charles I. Whether this fact be admitted or denied, no conclusion can be fairly drawn from the greater prevalence of republican principles, or from violent proceedings at that period, that can affect the distinguishing tenets and conduct of the Independents in our times. It is certain that the present Independents are steady friends to a limited monarchy. Rapin is farther mistaken when he represents the religious principles of the English Independents as contrary to those of all the rest of the world.
It appears from two confessions of faith, one composed by Robinson in behalf of the English Independents in Holland, and published at Leyden in 1619, entitled, Apologia pro Exulibus Anglis, qui Brownistae vulgo appellantur; and another drawn up in London in 1658, by the principal members of this community in England, entitled, "A Declaration of the Faith and Order owned and practised by the Congregational Churches in England, agreed upon and consented unto by their Elders and Messengers, in their meeting at the Savoy, Oct. 12th, 1658, " as well as from other writings of the Independents, that they differed from the rest of the reformed in no single point of any consequence, except that of ecclesiastical government; and their religious doctrines were almost entirely the same with those adopted by the church of Geneva. During the administration of Cromwell, the Independents acquired very considerable reputation and influence; and he made use of them as a check to the ambition of the Presbyterians, who aimed at a very high degree of ecclesiastical power, and who had succeeded, soon after the elevation of Cromwell, in obtaining a parliamentary establishment of their own church government. But after the restoration, their cause declined; and in 1691 they entered into an association with the Presbyterians residing in and about London, comprised in nine articles, that tended to the maintenance of their respective institutions.
These may be found in the second volume of Whiston's Memoirs, and the substance of them in Mosheim. At this time the Independents and Presbyterians, called from this association the United Brethren, were agreed with regard to doctrines, being generally Calvinists, and differed only with respect to ecclesiastical discipline. But at present, though the English Independents and Presbyterians form two distinct parties of Protestant Dissenters, they are distinguished by very triffling differences with regard to church government, and the denominations are more arbitrarily used to comprehend those who differ in theological opinions. The Independents are generally more attached to Calvinism than the Presbyterians. Independentism is peculiar to Great Britain, the United States, and the Batabian Republic. It was carried first to the American colonies in 1620, and by successive Puritan emigrants, in 1629, and 1633, from England. One Morel, in the sixteenth century, endeavoured to introduce it into France; but it was condemned at the synod of Rochelle, where Beza presided; and again at the synod of Rochelle, in 1644. Many of the Independents reject the use of all creeds and confessions draws up by fallible men, though they require of their teachers a declaration of their belief in the Gospel and its various doctrines, and their adherence to the Scriptures as the sole standard of faith and practice. They attribute no virtue whatever to the rite of ordination, upon which some other churches lay so much stress.
According to them, the qualifications which constitute a regular minister of the New Testament are, a firm belief in the Gospel, a principle of sincere and unaffected piety, a competent stock of knowledge, a capacity for leading devotion and communicating, instruction, a serious inclination to engage in the important employment of promoting the everlasting salvation of mankind, and ordinarily an invitation to the pastoral office from some particular society of Christians. Where these things concur, they consider a person as fitted and authorised for the discharge of every duty which belongs to the ministerial function; and they believe that the imposition of hands of bishops or presbyters would convey to him no powers or prerogatives of which he was not before possessed. But though they attribute no virtue to ordination, as conveying any new powers, yet they hold with and practise it. Many of them, indeed, suppose that the essence of ordination does not lie in the act of the ministers who assist, but in the choice and call of the people, and the candidate's acceptance of that call; so that their ordination may be considered only as a public declaration of that agreement.
See ORDINATION. They consider it as their right to choose their own ministers and deacons.
They own no man as head of the church. They disallow of parochial and provincial subordination; but though they do not think it necessary to assemble synods, yet, if any be held, they look upon their resolutions as prudential counsels, but not as decisions to which they are obliged to conform. They consider the Scriptures as the only criterion of truth. Their worship is conducted in a decent, plain, and simple manner, without the ostentation of form and the vain pomp of ceremony. The congregations of the Independents are very numerous, both in England and America, and some of them very respectable. This denomination has produced many characters as eminent for learning and piety as any church in Christendom; whose works, no doubt, will reflect lasting honour on their characters and abilities.
See CHURCH CONGREGATIONAL; NONCONFORMISTS, and books under those articles.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Independents'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/i/independents.html. 1802.