The “Half-Way Covenant” was an expedient adopted by New England churches in the seventeenth century to allow baptized persons of moral conduct and orthodox belief to have their children baptized but forbidding them the right to partake of the Lord’s Supper. It has been the rule to baptize those infants one of whose parents was a church member. When such baptized persons grew up and married but failed to join the Church, the question arose whether their children should be baptized. This question whether such as were church members by birth only were entitled to have their children baptized was a matter of controversy for nearly thirty years. At a synod called by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1662 the controversy came to an end. This synod confirmed the decision of a ministerial body appointed by the same court in 1657, namely, that non-regenerate members, who “owned the covenant”, publicly approved the principles of the Gospel, lived upright lives, and “promised to promote the welfare of and submit to the discipline of the church, might present their children to baptism, but they themselves might not come to the Lord’s table nor take part in ecclesiastical affairs. Notwithstanding much opposition, this became the general practice of the New England churches. Accordingly many persons of “reputable” life, especially iii times of religious interest, who could not make a full profession of religion, were admitted to Half-Way Covenant relations in the church and their children were baptized. Solomon Stoddard, pastor at Northampton, Mass., 1669-1729, initiated a further modification which was widely adopted:—the Lord’s Supper, in his view a converting ordinance, was to be participated in by “all adult members of the church who were not scandalous.” The Half-Way Covenant received its death-blow from Jonathan Edwards, Stoddard’s successor, although it survived for many years.
The name of Jonathan Edwards receives prominent mention in connection with the “Half-Way Covenant.” Considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards was born at Windsor Farms, Conn., Oct. 5, 1703, and died at Princeton, New Jersey, March 22, 1758. He graduated in 1720 from Yale College, then a school chiefly for the training of ministers, with the highest honors of his class. In 1727, when in his twenty fourth year, he was ordained as colleague with his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, and pastor of the Congregational Church at Northampton, Mass. In process of time he became convinced that his grandfather was wrong in permitting unconverted persons to partake of the Lord’s Supper. A prolonged controversy with the Northampton church followed, and Edwards was ejected in 1750 from the pastorate which he had adorned for more than twenty three years. In 1751 he was installed pastor of the small Congregational church in Stockbridge, Mass., and missionary of the Housalonic Indians at that place whom he served with fidelity. On Sept. 26, 1757, he was elected president of the college at Princeton, New Jersey, but was not inaugurated until Feb. 16, 1758. One week after his inauguration he was inoculated for the small-pox. A secondary fever intervened, and he died five weeks after his inauguration.
Jonathan Edwards was ejected from his pastorate at Northampton partly because of his opposition to the “Half-Way Covenant” as prevalent in his day. In its beginning this practice gave “non-regenerate” members who owned the covenant the right to present children for baptism, but withheld from them the right to partake of the Lord’s Supper. However, Solomon Stoddard initiated a further modification which was widely adopted as early as 1700. Stoddard had been a very practical man. Accordingly, when in 1700 he put his ear to the ground and heard ominous whispers of discontent from the Half-Way members who were shut out from the Lord’s table, he recognized that the Half-Way Covenant was in need of modification and improvement. He therefore decided to take his courage in hand, go one step further than the decision of 1662, and throw the doors wide open to Covenant and non-Covenant members alike. He did so in the belief that such a step might turn Half-Way members into better Christians. The Lord’s Supper he regarded as a converting ordinance, a means to induce Half-Way members to repent.
Moreover, to understand Jonathan Edwards’s ejection from his pastorate because of his opposition to the conception and practice of the Half-Way Covenant, we must bear in mind the historical event, known as “The Great Awakening,” which immediately preceded his dismissal. The “Great Awakening” was a tremendous revival particularly throughout New England under the magnetic and dynamic leadership of a certain English preacher, George Whitefield. Whitefield literally turned the spiritual world of his day in the colonies upside down. Whitefield, in contrast with the Calvinistic Jonathan Edwards, was a thorough Arminian. Emphasizing the Arminian “whosoever will” doctrine, this young English preacher was strictly a “revivalist.” In a week he had changed the whole definition of preaching and pulpit behavior. Instead of doctrine logically stated, proved, applied, according to a carefully prepared plan of argument, he dramatized both the biblical narrative and the application, . . .spoke entirely without notes, made violent gestures, laughed, sang, shed public tears, and literally took New England by storm. Hitherto preaching had been a solemn exercise. Sermons had been made according to the pattern. But here was a preacher who substituted human interest stories for sober logic, turned his pulpit into a stage, and gave church-going America its first taste of theatre under the flag of salvation. Conversions became common. The people were literally swept off their feet. Heaven’s doors were opened to all and the masses crowded one another to enter.
Consequently, Jonathan Edwards, in his struggle against the Half-Way Covenant and its practices, was engaged in a hopeless struggle already from the very beginning. It was impossible for him to maintain the Scriptural principle of limiting baptism as well as communion to the confessing people of God. It was impossible for him to shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven to some at a time when the door had been thrown wide open. He was ejected from his pastorate by a vote of more than three hundred to twenty three.
In our appraisal of the Half-Way Covenant, as also including Solomon Stoddard’s modification in 1700 to permit non-regenerate members to partake of the Lord’s Supper, we heed not prove in detail the error of this conception. It is surely Scriptural that, although all the children of confessing believers must be baptized, only believers may and can present their children for baptism. Only they may. We read in: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Notice here that Peter exhorts the people to repent and then be baptized. Baptism therefore follows upon repentance. Then he proceeds to declare in verse 39 that unto them is the promise and unto their children and to all that afar off, even as many as the Lord their God shall call. The implication is that God’s promises are to these who repent and their children, and to those who are afar off with their children, as many as the Lord shall call by His Spirit and Word. And this is taught throughout Scripture. Besides, only these can present their children for baptism. To present one’s child for baptism implies that we spiritually and consciously embrace the significance and practical implication of this sacrament, and this is possible only when we ourselves have a spiritual understanding of being baptized and risen with Christ.
Secondly, it is also Scriptural that only confessing believers may and can partake of the Lord’s Supper. We need but read our beautiful Communion Form to be convinced of this. The apostle Paul expressly commands “non-regenerate members who merely own the covenant” to abstain from the supper of the Lord. We are admonished to “examine ourselves and so partake of the Lord’s Supper lest we, eating and drinking unworthily, should eat and drink damnation to ourselves.” And, of course, only believers in Christ Jesus are spiritually able to partake of this sacrament. Only then will the table of the Lord not be abused and profaned.
Although the Half-Way Covenant was a theory and practice in New England more than two hundred and fifty years ago, its error is still prevalent today. In the first place I would call attention to the teachings of the Netherlands Free Reformed, or “Oud-Gereformeerden” of our present day. We grant that they are very strict in their teachings with respect to Holy Communion. In these circles only a few partake of this sacrament. Nevertheless, they adhere to the practices of the Half-Way Covenant as far as the sacrament of Baptism is concerned. Not all who present their children for baptism are permitted to partake of Communion. The fact remains that attendance at Communion is restricted to a very few and that members are discouraged from partaking of this sacrament. Conversely, those who cannot partake of Communion are permitted to present their children for baptism. It is true that only those who make profession of faith are permitted to present their children for baptism. This, however, only implies that “non-regenerated” persons are allowed to make confession of faith, that* their confession of faith is nothing else than “owning the covenant,” a mere intellectual agreement with the doctrine and principles of the church. This constitutes a clear violation of the principles of the Word of God with respect to the sacrament of Baptism. Also in these circles Baptism is viewed as an expediency measure. The children must be baptized. On the other hand, they fail to see the Scriptural principle that God develops His covenant organically in the line of succeeding generations. Hence, they also have adopted the practice of “owning the covenant” as an expediency measure, in order that their children may be baptized. This we would say on the one hand.
On the other hand, the Half-Way Covenant, with all its implications, particularly in the light of “The Great Awakening” should teach us that we must not be wiser than God. Jonathan Edwards, in his struggle against the errors of his day, was engaged in a hopeless struggle. Solomon Stoddard viewed Communion as a “conversion ordinance.” George Whitefield had proceeded one step farther and thrown wide open the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven. The people rejected any teaching or preaching which would shut the doors of the Kingdom. Arminianism today believes in a church with an open door. They have no place in their system of thought for a rigid enforcement of the two holy sacraments. Their conception allows no place for the doors of the Kingdom of God being shut. Stoddard and Whitefield were opening doors, not shutting them; Jonathan Edwards was shutting doors, not opening them. Hence, his cause was doomed to failure.
However, we may not be wiser than God. The Lord has indeed restricted the operations of His grace and Spirit to means. Only, He has restricted His salvation to His own means, which He has sovereignly instituted. But one course is left open to us, and that is that we use and enforce the means which He has given us. Doing this, whatever the outcome may be, we shall experience the blessing of the Lord. Expediency measures must never substitute the Divine means of grace. Let us preach the Word, enforce discipline, preserve the sanctity of the sacraments—the rest we may safely leave to God.