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Zechariah i. 5.
Your Fathers, Where Are They 1 And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever I
In the conclusion of the last Lecture, some account was given of the early education of the Rev. Thomas Shepard, third, and his ordination to the pastoral office over this church. Before proceeding to detail the few events we possess respecting his brief life and ministry, it is necessary to call your attention to the synod of 1679 and 80, the fourth and last General Council held by the Churches of this Commonwealth. The causes that gave occasion to the calling of this synod, were the severe and repeated judgments of God, which reminded the people of their departures from the strict principles and practices of their fathers.
The labors of the husbandman had been signally unproductive, in consequence of worms or droughts which occurred for many successive years; and the principal grains had almost perished under an unaccountable blast. Boston, and the chief seats of trade, had greatly suffered by fires; and by sea, great losses had befallen the merchants from shipwrecks, and the attacks of enemies upon their vessels and sailors; the small-pox also, and other pestilential diseases had occasioned great mortality among the people; and, besides all this, hundreds of the inhabitants of the frontier towns had been butchered by the Indians.
These multiplied frowns of Divine Providence, led the people to inquire into the causes of their sufferings. The clergy dwelt much, in their public discourses, upon the prevailing sins of the times; many of the churches renewed their covenant with God and each other; and the General Courts enacted laws to promote the work of reformation. But, as is usual in such cases, there was a great diversity of opinion in respect to the occasions or mcral causes of the divine inflictions under which they suffered. Many gave very strange reasons for the plagues of the country ; each man's opinion being formed in accordance with his private interests and views of religion.
To determine this question, therefore, and unite the minds of the people, a synod was convened at Boston, September 10, 1679; a general fast having been first kept by the churches, to seek the blessing of God upon their deliberations. The synod proceeded to consider the two following questions:
1. What are the evils that have provoked the Lord to bring his judgments on New England ?
2. What is to be done that so these evils may be reformed ? In answer to the first question, the synod enumerated the
evils to be found among them—sins which had been acknowledged before the Lord on days of humiliation appointed by authority, and yet not reformed; many of which were not punished or punishable by men, and were therefore (the synod judged) punished by God. It is not within my present limits to detail all the moral delinquencies which the synod mentioned under thirteen general heads. But it will cast light upon the moral aspect of that period, to notice the more prominent.
To sum up, then, as briefly as possible, the answer of the synod,1 to the first question, they declared :
(1.) That there was a visible decay of the power of godliness amongst many professors in these churches.
(2.) That pride abounded in New England, as evidenced in a refusing to be subject to order, according to divine appointment ; in contention, and in respect of apparel. Servants, and the poorer sort of people are notoriously guilty in this matter, who (too generally) go above their estates and degrees, thereby transgressing the laws both of God and man. Also, many not of the meaner sort, have offended God by strange apparel, not becoming serious Christians, especially in these days of affliction and misery.
1 Magnalia, II. 273.
(3.) That church fellowship, and other divine institutions are greatly neglected. Many of the rising generation are not mindful of that which their baptism doth engage them unto, viz: to use utmost endeavors that they may be fit for, and so partake in all the holy ordinances of the Lord Jesus. Nor is there so much of discipline extended towards the children of the covenant, as we are generally agreed ought to be done. On the other hand, human inventions and will-worship have been set up even in Jerusalem.
(4.) That the holy and glorious name of God hath been polluted and profaned amongst us, by oath and irreverent behavior in the solemn worship of God. It is a frequent thing for men (though not necessitated thereunto by any infirmity) to sit in prayer-time, and some with their heads almost covered, and to give way to their own sloth and sleepiness, when they should be serving God with attention and intention, under the solemn dispensation of his ordinances. We read of but one man in Scripture, that slept at a sermon, and that sin had like to have cost him his life. Acts xx. 9.
(5.) There is much Sabbath-breaking, by absence from public worship, by not keeping a seventh part of the time holy, in consequence of different apprehensions about the beginning of the Sabbath ; by walking abroad and travelling on the Sabbath ; by attention to servile callings and employments after the Sabbath is begun, or before it is ended; and by worldly and unsuitable discourses.
(6.) They allege that most of the evils that abound amongst us, proceed from defects as to family government. There are many families that do not pray to God constantly, morning and evening ; and many more, wherein the Scriptures are not daily read, that so the word of Christ might dwell richly in them. Children have not been kept in due subjection, and thus Christian parents have been like the Indians; and hence they have, in God's righteous providence, been punished by the Indians.
(7.) They complain of inordinate passions, sinful heats and hatreds among church members themselves, who abound with evil surmisings, uncharitable and unrighteous censures, backbitings, hearing and telling tales—few that remember and duly observe the rule, with an angry countenance to drive away the tale-bearer—reproachful and reviling expressions, sometimes to, or of one another.
(8.) There is much intemperance. That heathenish and idolatrous practice of health-drinking, is too frequent. Training days, and other public solemnities, have been abused; and not only English, but Indians have been debauched by those who call themselves Christians, who have put their bottles to them, and made them drunk also. This is a crying sin, and the more aggravated in that the first planters of this colony did (as is in the patent expressed) come into this land with a design to convert the heathen unto Christ; but if instead of that they be taught wickedness, which before they were never guilty of, the Lord may well punish us by them.
(9. 10.) They complain of a want of truth amongst men, and inordinate affection unto the world. There hath been, in many professors, an insatiable desire after land and worldly accommodations; yea, so as to forsake churches and ordinances, and to live like heathen, only that so they might have elbow room enough in the world. Farms and merchandisings have been preferred before the things of God. In this respect, the interest of New England seemeth to be changed. We differ from other outgoings of our nation, in that it was not any worldly considerations that brought our fathers into this wilderness, but religion, even so that they might build a sanctuary unto the Lord's name; whereas, now, religion is made subservient unto worldly interests. Wherefore, we cannot but solemnly bear witness against that practice of settling plantations without any ministry amongst them, which is to prefer the world before the Gospel.
(11. 12. 13.) They also complained of opposition to the work of reformation, a want of public spirit, and of impenitency and unfruitfulness under the means of grace.
In answer to the second question, " What is to be done ?" it was recommended among other things, that the present generation should declare their adherence to the faith and order of the Gospel, and that the churches should solemnly renew their covenants, maintain discipline, especially towards the children of the church, by which the disputes respecting the subjects of baptism would be comfortably issued. It was also recommended to the churches, to use their utmost endeavors to obtain a full supply of officers, according to Christ's institution. The defect of these churches is very lamentable, there being in most of the churches only one teaching officer for the burden of the whole congregation to lie upon. The Lord Jesus Christ would not have instituted pastors, teachers, ruling elders, if he had not seen there was need of them for the good of his people; and therefore, for men to think they can do well enough without them, is both to break the second commandment, and to reflect upon the wisdom of Christ as if he did appoint unnecessary officers in his church. Where there are great congregations, it is impossible for one man, besides his labors in public, fully to attend to personal instruction and discipline. Notwithstanding this recommendation, however, the distinction between pastor and teacher was gradually lost sight of, although the practice of having two ministers was still adhered to by many of our churches.
The synod, to carry out their first recommendation, assembled again in the spring of the following year, May 12, 1680. The result of this synod was a confession of faith, drawn up in the language of the Westminster confession, with a few variations from that of the Savoy. They chose to express themselves in the words of those reverend assemblies, (to use their own language) "that so they might not only with one heart, but with one mouth, glorify God and our Lord Jesus Christ."
This confession shows that our fathers held to the catholic faith of the Christian church, it being substantially the same as the confessions of all the reformed churches of Europe. It is an exposition of the theological doctrines of New England Congregationalism, as the Cambridge Platform is of its discipline and government. The sentiments and practice of our churches differ in certain particulars from both of these documents; but with their general and characterizing principles they still harmonize.
We proceed now with our history of Mr. Shepard's ministry. He was, at the period of his ordination, a very young man, not yet twenty-two years of age ; but his mind and character seem to have been precociously mature. The most judicious of his people were constrained to admit that he was no novice, and such was the purity and dignity of his example, that he let no man despise his youth. The gravity of his deportment kept