Brief History of Open Communion by William Cathcart – Page 1 BRIEF HISTORY OF OPEN COMMUNION By William Cathcart
Brief History of Open Communion by William Cathcart – Page 1
BRIEF HISTORY OF OPEN COMMUNION
By William Cathcart
Published in the Berea Baptist Banner July 5, 1997.
This practice is of comparatively modern origin, and
its history presents little to recommend it. It seems to
have been a natural outgrowth of persecuting times,
when the people of God were few in number and were
compelled to worship in secret places; and when the
preservation of the fundamentals of divine truth made
men blind to grave errors that were regarded as not soul
destroying. In the first half of the seventeenth century it
made its appearance in England. John Bunyan was its
ablest defender, and the church of which he was the
honored pastor illustrated the natural tendencies of the
system by its progress backward, in adopting infant
sprinkling and the Congregational denomination.
Open communion refers to fellowship at the Lord’s
table, and it has three forms, —a mixed membership;
occasional communion by the unbaptized in a church
whose entire membership is immersed; and two
churches in the same building, meeting together for ordinary
worship, but celebrating the Lord’s Supper at separate
times. The first was Bunyan’s, the second is followed
by Spurgeon, the third was the plan adopted by Robert
Hall in Leicester. The community in Hall’s chapel, which
he called “The Open Communion Church,” was composed
of “The Congregation” as distinct from the church
and such members of the church as might unite with
them. On his retirement from his pastorate in Leicester,
he sent two resignations to the people of his charge in
that city, —one to “The Church of Christ meeting in
Harvey Lane,” and another to “The Open Communion
Church meeting in Harvey Lane.”1
In this country the mixed membership form of open
communion had a very extensive trial, not in regular
Baptist churches nor in regular Baptist Associations. At
quite an early period in our history there were communities
practicing immersion and tolerating infant sprinkling,
or placing both upon an equal footing. No one of
our original Associations held open communion. The
annual or other gathering among Open Communists
similar to an Association was called “A Conference,”2
“A General Meeting,” or “A Yearly Meeting.” John
Asplund, in giving an account of the Associations and
other meetings of the communities that practiced immersion,
says, “The Groton Conference was begun 1785. . .
.Their sentiments are general provision (the Arminian
view of the atonement) and open or large communion.
Keep no correspondence.” That is, they were not recognized
by the Warren or any New England Baptist Association.
He speaks of a “General Meeting” in Maine, and he
states that it was “gathered about 1786. They hold to the
Bible without any other confession of faith. Keep no correspondence.
Very strict in the practical part of religion.
Their sentiments are universal provision and final falling
from grace.”3 These people were Arminians, and
were not in fraternal relations with Baptists.
In the New Light revivals in New England, where
the converted people left the Congregational and formed
“Separate Churches,” the membership was often equally
divided between Baptists and Pedobaptists. They loved
one another; they were hated by the state religious establishment;
they made special efforts and sometimes
solemn pledges that they would not alight each other’s
opinions. Open communion never had a fairer field,
and yet it was a complete failure. Instead of promoting
charity it broke up the peace of churches, and it was
finally renounced by pretty nearly all its original friends.
Isaac Backus, the historian, while pastor of an open communion
church at Titicut, was actually compelled by
the malice stirred up by open communion to form a
new organization, that he and his people might have
peace. Hovey says, “If any member of the church desired
to have his children baptized, he had permission
to call in a minister from abroad to perform the act; and
if any member who had been sprinkled in infancy
wished to be baptized, full permission was granted Mr.
Backus to administer the rite. Moreover, it was agreed
that no one should introduce any conversation which
would lead to remarks on the subjects or the mode of
baptism. . . .These persistent endeavors to live in peace
were unavailing. For when infants were sprinkled the
Baptists showed their dissatisfaction without leaving the
house, and when Mr. Backus baptized certain members
of his own church, the Congregationalists would not go
to witness the immersion, but called it rebaptizing and
taking the name of the Trinity in vain. And when the
members of the church met for conference they were
afraid to speak their minds freely, lest offense might be
given, and this fear led to an unbrotherly shyness.”4 For
the sake of peace Backus was driven, Jan. 16, 1756, to
have a Baptist church formed. And the same cause, aided
by increasing light from the Word of God, destroyed
this pernicious feature in nearly all the open communion
bodies in New England.
In Nova Scotia mixed communion was the custom
of the churches in which Baptists held their membership.
In 1798, when the Nova Scotia Association was
formed, its churches were all on this platform, and some
of the ministers were Pedobaptists. About 1774, when
one of the churches was destitute of a pastor, Mr. Allen
had two ruling elders ordained, one a Baptist and the
other a Congregationalist, with power to administer the
ordinances “each in his own way, agreeably to the sentiments
of his brethren; but this was a short-lived
Brief History of Open Communion by William Cathcart – Page 2
church.” In 1809, the Association passed a resolution
that no church should be a member of it that permitted
open communion.5 And long since the churches of that
province discarded the unscriptural practice altogether.
The pioneer Baptist ministers of Ontario and Quebec
were open communionists, and their little churches
caught their spirit; but today the Baptists of these provinces
are men whose orthodoxy their brethren everywhere
may regard with admiration. Open communion
in England is a splendid worldly door for a Baptist to
pass through when he wishes to exchange the plain Dissenting
chapel for the gorgeous State church, but it has
no attraction for the Pedobaptist, unless a Spurgeon for
a brief season may excite his curiosity.
Nearly twenty years ago an open communion church
was established in San Francisco, known as the Union
Square Baptist church. The members were godly, the
pastor was able, earnest, and devoted. No similar experiment
was ever tried under more favorable circumstances.
But after testing the project for many years the
discovery forced itself upon the pious leaders of the
enterprise that there was a defect in the scriptural basis
of their church, and the pastor withdrew and subsequently
united with the Regular Baptists. The church,
at a meeting held April 28, 1880, by a vote almost unanimous,
placed itself in harmony with the great Baptist
denomination of the United States.
Our doctrine of restricted communion is more generally
and intensely cherished among us at this time than
at any previous period in our history. Open communion
is regarded as a departure from scriptural requirement,
as an attack upon the convictions of nearly all
Christendom, and as a source of fraction and discord.
(Baptist Encyclopedia, Vol. I, pp. 257-258, 1881 edition).
1. Hall’s Works, Vol. 1, pp. 125-126, London, 1851.
2. Backus’s History of the Baptists, ii. 44. Newton.
3. Annual Register, pp. 48,49, 1790.
4. Hovey’s Life and Times of Isaac Backus, 115-118.
5. Benedict’s History of the Baptist Denomination, pp.
521,523,539, New York, 1848.