Half-Way Covenant

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An important doctrinal development in New England Congregationalism in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to the first New England Congregationalists, a true church was composed of those who, having an experience of salvation, were bound together by a covenant. To enter church membership the applicant related publicly the story and nature of his experience. All such members were entitled to present their sons and daughters for baptism as children of the covenant. The question arose (c. 1650) as to whether these children of the covenant, even though they could not relate a personal experience of conversion, could also present their children for baptism. Many churches permitted them to do so if they were of upright character, gave their intellectual assent to the principles of the Gospel, expressed their willingness to submit to the discipline, and promised to promote the welfare of the church; but they were not admitted to the communion and could neither hold office nor vote for church officers. This practice, usually called the half-way covenant, became a warmly debated issue. A majority representing the churches in the conventions of 1657 and 1662 approved the practice, but a minority dissented and held to the original requirements. Eventually many churches administered baptism to children of parents of worthy life. Early in the 18th century the practice spread of admitting to the Lord's Supper all baptized adults who were not leading scandalous lives in the hope that by coming to the communion they might experience conversion. Solomon Stoddard, long the pastor of the church in Northampton, Mass., and the father-in-law of Jonathan edwards, followed this procedure, and from him the custom spread widely in western Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley. The great awakening in New England, of which Jonathan Edwards was the outstanding figure, led in many churches to the rejection of the halfway covenant and the renewal of an experience of conversion as a prerequisite to church membership. Here, again, divisions occurred between those who held to the new theology, as that which stemmed from Edwards was called, and the practices that were associated with the half-way covenant.

Bibliography: w. walker, History of the Congregational Churches in the United States of America (New York 1894) 170182.

[k. s. latourette]