The Half-Way Covenant

Half-Way Covenant, religious-political solution adopted by 17th-century New England Congregationalists, also called Puritans, that allowed the children of baptized but unconverted church members to be baptized and thus become church members and have political rights. Early Congregationalists had become members of the church after they could report an experience of conversion. Their children were baptized as infants, but, before these children were admitted to full membership in the church and permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper, they were expected to also give evidence of a conversion experience. Many never reported a conversion experience but, as adults, were considered church members because they had been baptized, although they were not admitted to the Lord’s Supper and were not allowed to vote or hold office.

Encyclopedia Brittanica

Due to statements like the above, and because of the very name, I have always been under the impression that the position known as “the Half-Way Covenant” was invented by New England Congregationalists as a response to societal pressures. However, that is not really accurate. The following Wikipedia article is also representative of what I have previously read, but it is also quite inaccurate (notice the lack of citations):

The Half-Way Covenant was a form of partial church membership created by New England in 1662. It was promoted in particular by the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, who felt that the people of the English colonies were drifting away from their original religious purpose. First-generation settlers were beginning to die out, while their children and grandchildren often expressed less religious piety, and more desire for material wealth.

Full membership in the tax-supported Puritan church required an account of a conversion experience, and only persons in full membership could have their own children baptized.[citation needed] Second and third generations, and later immigrants, did not have the same conversion experiences. These individuals were thus not accepted as members despite leading otherwise pious and upright Christian lives.

In response, the Half-Way Covenant provided a partial church membership for the children and grandchildren of church members. Those who accepted the Covenant and agreed to follow the creed within the church could participate in the Lord’s supper. Crucially, the half-way covenant provided that the children of holders of the covenant could be baptized in the church. These partial members, however, couldn’t accept communion or vote.[1]

Puritan preachers hoped that this plan would maintain some of the church’s influence in society, and that these ‘half-way members’ would see the benefits of full membership, be exposed to teachings and piety which would lead to the “born again” experience,[citation needed] and eventually take the full oath of allegiance.[citation needed] Many of the more religious members of Puritan society rejected this plan as they felt it did not fully adhere to the church’s guidelines, and many of the target members opted to wait for a true conversion experience instead of taking what they viewed as a short cut.[who?]

Notice how this conflicts with the Brittanica article. Solomon Stoddard did not promote the Half-Way Covenant. He promoted an idiosyncratic position that admitted everyone to the Lord’s Supper as a converting ordinance, which is a different issue.

The Half-Way Covenant was specifically about baptism. New England Congregationalists, in forging the new path of Congregationalism, made a bold step in requiring a profession of saving faith (a demonstration of a work of grace in their lives) for membership. The reformed tradition only required profession of the true religion (“historical faith”). The question that arose was what to do with the children of people who had been baptized as infants into the church, but never made a profession of saving faith. Should these children be baptized?

When our churches were come to between twenty and thirty years of age, a numerous posterity was advanced so far into the world, that the first planters began apace in their several families to be distinguished by the name of grand-fathers ; but among the immediate parents of the grand children, there were multitudes of well disposed persons, who, partly thro’ their own doubts and fears, and partly thro’ other culpable neglect, had not actually come up to the covenanting state of covimunicants at the table of the Lord. The good old generation could not, without many uncom fortable apprehensions, behold their offspring excluded from the baptism of Christianity, and from the ecclesiastical inspection which is to accom pany that baptism; indeed, it was to leave their off-spring under the shepherdly government of our Lord Jesus Christ in his ordinances, that they had brought their lambs into this wilderness.

When the apostle bids churches to “look diligently, lest any man fail of the grace of God,” there is an ecclesiastical word used for that “looking diligently;” intimating that God will ordinarily bless a regular church-watch, to maintain the interests of grace among his people: and it was therefore the study”\ of those prudent men, who might he call’d our seers, that the children of \ ‘ the faithful may bo kept, as far as may be, under a church-watch, in i expectation that they might be in the fairer way to receive the grace of ! God; thus they were “looking diligently,” that the prosperous and pre vailing condition of religion in our churches might not be Res unius ailalis, — “a matter of one age alone.”

Moreover, among the next sons or daughters descending from that generation, there was a numerous appearance of sober persons, who professed themselves desirous to renew their baptismal-covenant and submit unto the church-discipline, and so have their houses also marked for the Lord’s; but yet they could not come up to that experimental account of their own regeneration, which would sufficiently embolden their access to the other sacraments. Wherefore, for our churches now to make no ecclesiastical difference between these hope ful candidates and competents for those our further mysteries, and Pagans, who might happen to hear the word of God in our assemblies, was judged a most unwarrantable strictness, which would quickly abandon the biggest part of our country unto heathenism. And, on the other side, it was feared that, if all such as had not yet exposed themselves by censurable scandals found upon them, should be admitted unto all the priviledges in our churches, a worldly part of mankind might, before we are aware, carry all things into such a course of proceeding, as would be very disagreeable unto the kingdom of heaven.

Cotton Mathers’ Magnalia Christi Americana

The magistrates of Connecticut and Massachusetts called for a synod to answer the issue. The synod’s answer was what has become known as the half-way covenant: the children of non-communicant members may be baptized. But the important point to understand was that the ministers did not see themselves as inventing or creating anything new. They were simply explaining and clarifying what had always been their position, and what had always been the reformed position. What was new was their requirement for a profession of saving faith in the first place.

What is interesting is the debate that ensued after the synod’s declaration. Increase Mather, son-in-law of John Cotton, objected to the report. He was born in New England and graduated from Harvard, but then studied in England and was a pastor there from 1658-1661. As a non-conformist he was forced to flee back to New England. It appears that this second generation of congregationalists did not share the reformed assumptions of their previous generation. Increase’s father Richard Mather was at the head of the synod’s report. The two were in disagreement, which was expressed via public written exchanges.

Increase could not understand, how someone who showed no signs of faith should be considered a Christian and thus should have their children baptized. His confusion stemmed from the new beliefs of the Congregationalist/Independent movement in New England. Separatists in England, in reaction to the Church of England, took steps towards a “pure church” concept by separating from the Church of England so they could administer their own discipline. Congregationalists, typically not Separatists (disavowing the Church of England), furthered this concept of the gathered church by requiring a profession of saving faith (conversion experience) prior to admitting a member to the Lord’s Supper (thus becoming a “communicant” member as opposed to a regular member). This has sometimes been referred to as a “church within a church”. (See Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea)

This led to obvious conflict in Increase Mather’s understanding of membership. Eventually, he could not answer the logic flowing from the presuppositions regarding baptism itself and he humbly changed his mind, admitting that non-communicant members may have their children baptized.

The “Half-Way Covenant” was not an invention or a liberalizing tendency in New England churches. It was the historic reformed position. Rejection of this position is actually lamented by Presbyterian historians:

In view of the extensive acceptance of the Presbyterian theory of church order in the British Islands it is surprising that so long a period elapsed before it took root in any of the British colonies in America. Up to the time of Cromwell’s accession to power and even after that event the central and probably the largest body of the English Puritans were Presbyterians with moderate Episcopalians like Ussher and Reynolds forming the right wing while Independents and Baptists were the left. While the Pilgrim Fathers who settled the Plymouth colony were Independents on principle the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony were largely Presbyterians in theory before their emigration. But the suppression of the attempts to set up the Genevan order in England in 1591 through the hostility of Archbishop Whitgift and its partial suspension in Scotland by the Compromise of 1586 and by the Articles of Perth in 1618 had prevented any practical application of Presbyterian principles within Great Britain. It was merely a theory and in the case of the English Puritans it was subject to the influence of that general tendency to pure individualism which dominated the whole Puritan movement From Anglican to Presbyterian from that to Independent and from that to Baptist ending often in Seekerism or Quakerism is the gamut through which the active spirits of the time easily ran.

In laying the foundations of church order in the absence of precedence and traditions and not uninfluenced by the proximity of the pronounced Independents of Plymouth the Puritans of New England drifted into arrangements which were midway between Presbyterianism and Independency with a strong leaning toward the latter. Not that there was no resistance to this. “The New England way,” as it was called, excited some sharp criticism among the Puritan divines in England and in 1637-39 there was a prolonged correspondence between them and their brethren on the subject, not entirely to their satisfaction. But the two tendencies struggled for the mastery for nearly seventy years, the Presbyterian finding able supporters in John Eliot (“The Divine Ordinance of Councils” 1665) and the Mathers.

Dr HM Dexter felicitously describes the New England way as a Congregationalized Presbyterianism which had its roots in one system and its branches in another and says that the Massachusetts churches differed locally from the almost Presbyterianism of Hingham and Newbury port to the pronounced Independency of Plymouth. But he is not so happy in his statement that the system was essentially Genevan within the local congregation and essentially other outside it. The absence of regularly constituted sessions for the administration of church discipline and the refusal of baptism to the children of baptized persons who were not communicants marked the local congregation as un Presbyterian. The latter rule was a rejection of the judgment of charity accepted by all the Reformed churches. It was one of the moot points between the two parties in the Westminster Assembly and in 1662 the severer rule had to be relaxed even in New England by the Half Way Covenant. On the other hand the high authority claimed and exercised by synods called by the civil magistrate of which six met during the seventeenth century shows that even outside the local congregation the New England way was not so entirely other than Genevan. We hear of no more such synods when the Congregational principle had attained supremacy in Massachusetts and the church order had taken the shape indicated in the writings of Rev John Wise (“The Churches Quarrell Espoused” 1710) who completed what John Cotton and his associates had begun.

A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States

Commenting on the above quote, Gordon Clark notes:

This emotional pietism, as it demanded a particular type of experience for regeneration, tended to view the ideal church as consisting entirely of regenerate persons sharing such an experience. The logical result is the Baptist position; but in Presbyterianism it stopped short at requiring the faith of the parents who wanted their children baptized. But if it did not result in Baptists practices, it involved a change in the theology of baptism.

-Sanctification, p. 65

(Side note: The Massachusetts synod insisted their principle only applied to the “next parent” and not to grandparents or ancestors, for “If we stop not at the next parent, but grant that ancestors may… convey membership unto children, then we should want a ground where to stop, and then all the children on earth should have right to membership and baptism.” To which Gordon Clark responded “Does the Bible require or prohibit baptisms to the thousandth generation? If it does, and if a generation is roughly thirty years, a thousand generation from the time of Christ would include just about everybody in the western world. Then the church should have baptized the child of an intensely Talmudic Jew whose ancestor in 50 B.C. was piously looking for the Messiah. Or, George Whitefield should have baptized Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Tom Paine, as children, because one of their ancestors played a small role in the Reformation. Strange as this may seem to many, it ought to have been done if the Bible so teaches.”)

All of that is just a very long winded way of saying that you should read Cotton Mather’s account of the debate, including the arguments from Increase Mather against the practice, and the response that he could not ultimately refute. It sheds great light on the question of baptism. You can read it in Volume II of Cotton Mathers’ Magnalia Christi Americana (p. 276), as well as Ch. 3 S. 6 of the Memoirs of Increase Mather (p. 17).

The Answer of the Elders and Other Messengers of the Churches, Assembled at Boston in the Year 1662, The Results of the Three Synods (Boston, 1725).

Quest. I. Who are the Subjects of Baptism?

The Answer may be given in the following Propositions, briefly confirmed from the Scriptures.

I. They that according to Scripture, are Members of the Visible Church, are the Subjects of Baptism.

2. The Members of the Visible Church according to Scripture, are visible Believers, in particular Churches, and their Infant i. e. Children in Minority, whose next Parents, one or both, are in Covenant.

3. The Infant-seed of Confederate visible Believers, are Members of the Church with their Parents, and when grown up, are personally under Watch, Discipline and Government of that Church.

4. These adult Persons, are not therefore to be admitted to full Communion, meerly because they are and continue Members, without such Qualifications, as the Word of God requireth thereunto.

5. Church-Members who were admitted in minority, understanding the Doctrine of Faith, and publickly professing their assent thereto; not scandalous in Life, and solemnly owning the Covenant before the Church, wherein they give up themselves and their Children to the Lord, and subject themselves to the Government of Christ in the Church, their Children are to be baptized.

6. Such Church-Members, who either by Death, or some other extraordinary Providence, have been inevitably hindred from publick acting as aforesaid, yet have given the Church cause in judgment of Charity, to look at them as so qualfied, and such, as had they been called thereunto, would have so acted; their Children are to be baptized.

7. The Members of Orthodox Churches, being sound in the Faith, and not scandalous in Life, and presenting due Testimony thereof; these occasionally coming from one Church to another, may have their Children baptized in the Church whither they come, by virtue of communion of Churches: But if they remove their Habitation, they ought orderly to covenant and subject themselves to the Government of Christ in the Church where they settle their abode, and so their Children to be baptized. It being the Churches duty to receive such unto Communion, so far as they are regularly fit for the same.

Here is a highlight of the ensuing debate:

Apology — VI. The application of the seal of baptism unto those who are not true believers, (we mean visibly, for De Occultis non Judical Ecclesia* The church passes no Judgment on the secrets of the heart) is a profanation thereof, and as dreadful a sin as if it man should administer the Lord’s Supper unto unworthy receivers; which is (as Calvin saith) as sacrilegious impiety, as if a man should take the blood or body of Christ and prostitute it unto dogs. We marvel that any should think that the blood of Christ is not as much profaned and villified by undue administration of baptism, as by undue administration of the Lord’s Supper.

In a private letter to Increase Mather, Mr. Mitchell summarized the debate:

“Please to consider which of these three propositions you would deny:

1, The whole visible church under the New Testament is to be baptized.
2, If a man be once in the church, nothing less than censurable evil can put him out.
3, If the parent be in the visible church, his infant child is so too.”

Increase could not answer the question.

Know, then, that Mr. Michael, partly by the light of truth fairly offered, and partly by the force of prayer for the good success of the offer, was too hard for the most learned apologist [Increase]; who, after he had written so exactly on the anti-synodalian side, that, finding that Scripture and reason lay most on the other side, not only surrendered himself a glad captive thereunto, but also obliged the church of God, by publishing unto the world a couple of most nervous treatises, in defence of the synodical propositions. The former of these treatises was entitled, ” The First Principles of New England, concerning the Subject of Baptism, and Communion of Churches:” wherein, because the anti- synodists commonly reproached the doctrine of the synod, as being no less hew than the practice of it, he answers this popular imputation of innovation and apostacy, by demonstrating, from the unquestionable writings of the chief and first fathers in our churches, that the doctrine of the synod was then generally believed by them: albeit the practice thereof had been buried in the circumstances of the “new plantation.”

4 thoughts on “The Half-Way Covenant

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