Church history has special value for all Christians. It is a storehouse of warning and encouragement, consolation and counsel, and a help in predicting the future. C.S. Lewis compared the reader of history to the man who has lived in many places. This man “is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”[1]

It is not without reason, then, that in our treatment of the subject of inter-church associations, we turn the rusty pages of history. And there we will find that our Reformed Baptist forefathers have traversed many an inter-church fellowship path, meeting with experiences and learning lessons that are worthy of our examination and reflection. While a study of several Baptist associations would have been a valuable engagement and would have given us a broader picture on the subject, constraints of space have compelled me to narrow our attention to one particular association; namely, the Philadelphia Baptist Association in America (hereafter referred to as the PBA). 

The History of the Philadelphia Baptist Association

The Philadelphia Baptist Association has been named by historians as the first Baptist association in America. It was formed on 27 July, 1707. The association originated out of a circle of churches which began to meet in the 1680s. One such church was at Pennypack, whose first pastor was Elias Keach, son of a famous English preacher, Benjamin Keach. Before long, Keach was ministering to assemblies of people in various parts of the middle colonies. As churches began to be more and more organised, the need to maintain close contact amongst themselves was becoming increasingly apparent. Surrounded by people of other beliefs or no beliefs, the Baptists needed the strength that could come from associating with brethren from other places. Every year from 1688 to 1692, these churches met informally at Pennypack for fellowship with one another, to ordain pastors and to listen to inspirational sermons. From 1692, they started meeting every three months. It was out of these informal meetings that a more formal and organised body was born in 1707 and took its present name. The yearly meetings of the association were to be attended by a body of duly appointed delegates representing the member congregations. These delegates would meet to “consult about such things as were wanting in the churches and set them in order”.[2] From five churches in 1707, the association grew to fifty-three churches by 1791, covering an area from as far south as Virginia to New York in the north.

Structure and Authority

Like its sister organizations in Britain, the PBA was loose in structure, without power or authority to bind the churches composing it. From its first year, the association focused on the unity of Baptist congregations for a greater purpose, but without surrendering the autonomy of the local church. It was regarded simply as an advisory council, looked to for decision and guidance in matters both trivial and important. If a church brought a problem before the association for its consideration, the association would deliberate and give its advice. But the ultimate decision as to what needed to be done was entirely left in the hands of the local church. The association did not coerce or impose its will upon any church. A reading of the minutes from year to year indicates that the various churches relied upon the Association for advice and even for the settlement of disputes.

The PBA faced this question of power and authority very frankly. In 1949, it asked Benjamin Griffith to prepare an essay “respecting the power and duty of an Association.” They unanimously adopted Griffith’s essay and inserted it into the minutes in 1749 “that it may appear what power an Association of churches hath, and what duty is incumbent on an Association; and prevent the contempt with which some are ready to treat such an assembly, and also to prevent any future generation from claiming more power than they ought – lording it over the churches.”[3]

Leon Mcbeth observes that Griffith’s essay provided to the PBA a model of balance and restraint, setting out clearly the authority of both churches and association.[4] Griffith stated in his essay:

That an Association is not a superior judicature, having such superior power over the churches concerned, but that each particular church hath a complete power and authority from Jesus Christ, to administer all gospel ordinances, provided they have a sufficiency of officers duly qualified,…and to receive in and cast out, and also to try and ordain, their own officers, and to exercise every part of gospel discipline and church government, independent of any other church or assembly whatever.”[5]

It can be seen from Griffith’s essay that the Association (at least in its better days) did not seek to assume any authority or bishop-like position of leadership over churches that exceeded the biblically sanctioned stewardship given to elders of a local church.

Doctrinal Unity

From inception, the PBA was made up of churches that firmly and unwaveringly affirmed the Reformed and Calvinistic doctrines. They adhered to the doctrines expressed in the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. In 1742 they republished this Confession with slight editorial changes to include articles on hymn singing and laying on of hands. Though Americans were going through significant cultural shifts politically and religiously, the PBA remained steadfast in the doctrine of their forefathers. It did not waver from its solid, historic Calvinism, at least not until the 1800’s. This unwavering doctrinal position which lasted for more than one hundred years is attributed to a number of factors, most important of which is their Confession of Faith. Besides this solidly confessional position, the association also started to put out and circulate to all the member churches, an annual doctrinal circular letter, starting in 1744. According to the minutes of the PBA, the original plan of the circular letter was:

  1. The contents of the general letter shall consist of observations and improvements of some particular article of faith, contained in our Confession, beginning with the first, and so on in order, unless occasion requires the contrary….
  2. Let diligent care be used to caution the churches against innovations in doctrine and practice, and to watch against errors and avoid them whenever they rise and by whomsoever they may be propagated.

It is a well known fact of history that for the entire 18th century right up to the middle of the 19th century, the PBA held a solidly Reformed position. Tom Nettles notes that many cases of doctrinal discipline appear on the pages of the minutes of the PBA as well as a well-ordered plan for inculcating orthodox doctrine.[6]

Functions and Achievements

The Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association provides insight into the various issues which concerned the Baptist churches in eighteenth-century America. When organised in 1707, the PBA was to meet annually “to consult about such things as were wanting in the churches, and to set them in order.” What is it that was “wanting” in the churches? What is it that needed to be “set in order”?

From the minutes, we learn that the Baptist churches and its people were struggling to find their way in the world. In some areas, the Baptists were not only very small in number, but also persecuted and the need for encouragement and fellowship with other like-minded brethren was paramount. Most congregations were very weak and possessed limited ministerial leadership. Educated ministers or laity were very few. For this reason, these early Baptist churches in America needed each other! They grappled with doctrinal and theological issues such baptism, ordination, church disputes, worship, etc. The PBA functioned as an advisory council in such matters. Securing and sustaining a regular preaching ministry in the light of a serious scarcity of ministers was one of the functions of the PBA. Churches were encouraged “to make inquiry among themselves, if they have any young persons hopeful for the ministry, and inclinable to learning.” Conversely, the PBA warned churches against unworthy or unorthodox preachers. In the first half of the eighteenth-century the PBA concentrated its energies on the needs of the churches and the ministry. Walter Shurden observes that:

In the last half of the century, it turned more toward becoming a voice for ministerial education, religious liberty, and missions, in that order. To say it another way, in the first half of the century, the churches appealed to the association to aid the churches with their internal problems. In the latter part of the century the association appealed to the churches to work together through the association to accomplish externally what the churches could not do in isolation. It also promoted the benevolent work, primarily in the three areas of Christian education, the struggle for religious liberty, and home missions. It was instrumental in establishing hundreds of other churches and took a special interest in giving aid to destitute areas of the South.[7]

The Philadelphia Baptist Association Today

The PBA today is a pale shadow of its former self. Towards the end of the 19th century, Arminianism began to creep into its ranks. Many member churches were beginning to repudiate the doctrines that held the association together. Some gave in to a low view of Scripture, the “social gospel”, and liberalism. Slowly, the association was becoming a victim of its time, imbibing the revolutionary spirit of individualism and liberty. The Confession was being rejected as being too restrictive and oppressive and therefore irrelevant in a free society. The Great Awakening and the influence of revivalism did not leave the Baptists unaffected. Doctrinal instruction, church discipline, ministerial training, church government and the local church became secondary issues. 

Lessons for Us

As we begin to consider the lessons for us, we will do well to heed the warning of Dr Wayne Mack. In his essay, on “The Philadelphia Association,”[8] he states three dangers we must avoid in reference to the study of church history, including the history of inter-church association: “first…the danger of glamorising the past by giving to the past movements and people a perfection which they did not in reality possess. Second…the danger of standardising the past movements and people by making them our absolute standard for everything we do, believe or say today. Third…the danger of despising the past by refusing to appreciate the real achievements and accomplishments of past movements and people.” It is my hope that we shall strive to steer our ships clear of this dangerous course.

Bearing in mind Dr Mack’s warnings, what lessons does the history of the Philadelphia Baptist Association provide to us today?

  1. We learn that the strength of any church association is to be found in its doctrinal unity. The churches of the PBA subscribed to a common confession of faith which defined who they were doctrinally. It is only when there is a strong doctrinal unity that we can enjoy any biblical and intimate fellowship with other brethren with whom we share a common and consistent commitment to our cherished faith. Laxity in this area opens wide the door to compromise and pragmatism.
  2. We learn that we must be willing to go to great lengths to work out a clear, definite and biblical structure and authority which does not force the church to surrender any measure of its autonomy to the association. This is something that the PBA strove to do. Discussions, debates and essays were written to ensure that Baptist church polity was not violated, nor sacrificed at the altar of inter-church fellowship. It must not escape our minds that associations can only be wonderfully effective and be the products of much good if they remain submissive to the Word of God and also remain servants of the churches.
  3. We learn that the basis for an association must be well argued and anchored to the unchanging and timeless truth of the Scripture. In my reading, I was sad to note that the Philadelphia Baptist Association did not plant the arguments of its legitimacy deeply into the soil of Scripture. Shurden observes that delegates of the Philadelphia Association recommended their organisation, not on biblical or theological grounds, but because of its effectiveness.[9] The suspicion, reluctance, and open contempt some people have for associations are in part to be traced to this dearth of convincing arguments rooted in Scripture. As people of the Book, we must form associations which have as their starting point, a convincingly articulated church order as seen in the New Testament.


Griffith, B (1749) “Essay on the Authority and Power of An Association of Churches” published in the Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association.

Horr, G. (1923) The Baptist Heritage, Philadelphia: The Baptist Press.

Gillette, G.A. (ed.) (1923) Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association from A. D. 1707, to A. D. 1807;being the first One Hundred Years of its Existence. Philadelphia: The Baptist Press.

Mack, W. A. (1972) “The Philadelphia Association,” in The Ideal Church. Worthing, England: Henry E. Walter, Carey Publication.

Mcbeth, L. H. (1978) The Baptist Heritage. Nashville: Broadman Press.

Nettles, T. J. (2005) The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity vol. 2. Rosh-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.

Shurden, W. B. (2005) Distinctively Baptist: Essays on Baptist History. Mercer University Press.

* * * * * * * * * * 

The Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals, USA

(An example of inter-church association in the 21st century)

Article 2 (of their constitution reads):  Purposes of this Association

  1. That churches may mutually encourage one another through edifying fellowship and counsel.
  1. That churches of like mind may share resources and assist one another in cooperative efforts in ministry to God’s glory.
  1. That believers may enjoy an identity and unity beyond that of their local church by praying for and participating in the ministry efforts of other churches, and by identifying a network of other similar churches when they travel or move (John 17:20-26).

[1]  ”Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory.

[2] Horr, G. (1923) The Baptist Heritage, Philadelphia: The Baptist Press, p.59.

[3] Gillette, G.A. (ed.) (1923) Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association from A. D. 1707 to A. D. 1807; being the first One Hundred Years of its Existence. Philadelphia: The Baptist Press, p.60.

[4] Mcbeth, L. H. (1978) The Baptist Heritage. Nashville: Broadman Press, p.243.

[5] Gillette, G.A. (ed.) (1923) Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association from A. D. 1707, to A. D. 1807;being the first One Hundred Years of its Existence. Philadelphia: The Baptist Press, p.60-61.

[6] Nettles, T. J. (2005) The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity vol. 2. Rosh-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, p.75.

[7] Nettles, T. J. (2005) The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity vol. 2. Rosh-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, p.76.

[8] Mack, W. A. (1972) “The Philadelphia Association,” in The Ideal Church. Worthing, England: Henry E. Walter, Carey Publication, p.46.

[9] Shurden, W. B. (2005) Distinctively Baptist: Essays on Baptist History. Mercer University Press, p.110.