Discipline was part and parcel of the 19th century Baptist experience. Misbehaviour which was judged incongruent with the church’s understanding of Christian life would be grounds for expulsion from the church membership – even if only on a temporary basis. What did expulsion entail in the 19th century? Read onwards to find out!
John Gill, a prominent Baptist, discussed the details of excommunication in his Body of Dvinity, published in the 17th century. In setting out what excommunication entails, he first emphasises what excommunication does not include. He asserts that excommunication is not delivering the former member to Satan, it is not a civil affair, and it does not have different levels. What excommunication is, argues Gill, is the “removal of a man from the communion of the church, and all privileges associated”.
The language used by Baptist churches in their minute books to mark these occasions is noteworthy – frequently when members were excluded from membership, the secretaries marked their expulsion by stating that
“Their names were erased from the church book.”
Using this vernacular to describe member expulsion would have been significant to the members of this community.
It would have conjured up images of the scene described in Revelation 22, in which God describes the future blessing to those who follow his commandments as well as the dire consequences for those who try to impede his glory –
“God shall take away his part out of the book of life”
– signifying their removal from fellowship with God. Although Gill very explicitly advises that excommunication is not equivalent to eternal condemnation, the imagery still would not have been lost on the recipient of this discipline.
The “privileges associated” which Gill mentioned above are those which are naturally born out of fellowship. Gill makes this clear when he advises on how current members should treat the excommunicated members. In answering how excommunication should be expressed he answers: [By] avoiding familiar conversation with them; not keeping company with them, not eating with them at the Lord’s table.” Generally, excommunication from the membership meant being cut off from fellowship with the other members of that church. Even if these former members continued to attend the church, they were forbidden to participate in its privileges – the Lord’s Supper, or friendly fellowship.