The Half-Way Covenant & Whole-Hearted Youth Ministry

Baptists and Presbyterians can agree regarding one application of child baptism in church history. What was known as the Half-way Covenant was a bad idea. Yet from it we can gain a valuable lesson regarding the church’s gospel duty to young people.

Jonathan Edwards was the pastor during colonial America to the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts. His preaching in the mid-1700’s was one of the means God used to create the Great Awakening, where multitudes of people turned to the Lord. Yet in the midst of this great fruitfulness, a difficulty arose prompted by a practice in the church established by Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who preceded Edwards as the minister in Northampton.

Children had been baptized in the Northampton congregation, grown up, and had not clearly professed Christ. Yet their names were left on the roll as baptized members. Then they began to have children. Stodddard, in the hope of influencing this later generation with the gospel, allowed the grandchildren of believing members to be baptized. In response, since church membership at the time was socially desirable, many parents who did not have saving faith in Christ readily agreed to have their children baptized. This Half-way Covenant, as it came to be called, effectively welcomed unbelief into the church. Eventually Stoddard even let these baptized church members take communion if they simply lived morally and gave assent to basic Christian doctrines.

When Edwards replaced his grandfather in the pastorate there, he eventually began to insist that communion was only for those who made a true profession of faith, and who experienced and evidenced its fruits. For Edwards, it was more than only a theological issue, but a pastoral one as well. Youth in the church at the time, who were not truly in Christ, were quite worldly. For example, several young men, who had gotten a hold of a book on female sexuality, began to use its terms to taunt the girls in the church with vulgar comments that would be regarded as sexual harassment today. Edwards began insisting that to come to the Lord’s Table the youth needed to repent of their sins, express clear faith in Christ, and demonstrate a level of holiness. Yet this stance quickly became a flash point in the congregation.

Edwards was not perfect in his pastoral handling of this matter. Alan Strange, in an article “Jonathan Edwards on Visible Sainthood: The Communion Controversy in Northampton,” said that Edwards “took the whole situation quite seriously, (and) in seeking to enact church discipline he read a list of names from the pulpit” (of young people to come to his office to discuss this matter), but failed to “distinguish between accused and witnesses.” Rather than forgiving a pastoral blunder and getting to the heart of the real issue, the uproar in the church over this matter led to his dismissal from the church in 1750. Quite an ignoble departure for a man the Lord had used so mightily.

Jonathan Edwards’ struggle with the Halfway Covenant reminds us of the need for youth to embrace Christ heartily, to come to an awareness of their need for vital union with Christ. As Strange concluded, “Edwards was right—in line with Scripture, confession, and historic Calvinism—in arguing that a visible saint is one who truly evidences godliness and it is such who are properly qualified to come to the Table of the Lord.” What Edward’s lost his pastorate over should be the goal for ministering to church youth. Yet in our secular age, many congregations do a half-hearted job in caring for their youth. They offer an hour or less Sunday school class each week, provide a youth group that focuses on having clean fun, then later wonder why so many children of the church leave the faith in their young adult years.

Rather than a half-way effort, the church should be whole-heartedly devoted to training their young people in Christian discipleship. Pastors should doggedly pursue their young people like Edwards did, appealing from the pulpit for them to trust in Christ, meeting with them to answer questions, and encouraging them to gather together to study the deeper truths of God’s Word. Those that work with youth should be sober-minded about this ministry, laboring to build the kingdom of God into hearts through teaching youth Biblical basics, selfless service, and mission mindedness. Young people should be challenged to read and study theology. I’m thankful for a program in our church called Theological Foundations for Youth (click link to watch an explanatory video) that asks students heading into their senior year of high school to give three weeks of their summer to study at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, interact seriously with others regarding their faith, and serve local congregations in vital ministry. Yes, in each of these pursuits and others like them you can spend some time playing with the youth, but it is time to stop playing around with our youth.

For we should see that Edwards not only lost the pastorate over his convictions regarding ministering to young people. In his writings, it is clear he saw God’s work among the youth as what helped spark the Great Awakening in the first place. In his work On the Great Awakening published in 1743, he wrote:

In the year 1740, in the spring, before Mr. Whitefield came to this town, there was a visible alteration. There was more seriousness and religious conversation, especially among young people…By the middle of December, a very considerable work of God appeared among those that were very young…in the spring an engagedness of spirit about things of religion was become very general among young people and children, and religious subjects almost wholly took up their conversation when they were together…”

May it be so again.

7 Comments

  1. William Duncan September 19, 2017 at 5:41 am #

    Great points. Interestingly enough, I was just reading Thomas Boston on the same issue that was becoming problematic in the Scotland. Therefore this halfway covenant would possibly have entered into the Church from some of the Congregationalists who crossed the pond fleeing the Church of England. Stoddard also believed in the regenerative nature of the Lord’s Supper therefore allowing unbelievers to partake as a means of obtaining saving faith. The congregational form of government led to the rule by the masses and thus the condemning without process of Edwards.

    • Barry York September 19, 2017 at 8:15 am #

      Further interesting insights. Thanks for sharing them!

  2. Kent Butterfield September 19, 2017 at 9:50 am #

    Thank you for the emphasis to reach the covenant youth and promotion of the Theological Foundation for Youth. Barry your article did not mention the failure of the churches in requiring a special “conversion experience” for all who would become communicant members. A dramatic spiritual experience does not always happen for covenant children who do come to faith. Many covenant children “cannot remember a time when they did not believe” and that is ideal for conversion. The sudden awaking to one’s sinful nature and one’s desperate need for a Savior is only experienced 100% of the time by first generation christians. It can happen to covenant children at any age but might not for some are converted in the womb and some at the youngest age and so don’t remember a time when they did not believe. The Half Way Covenant first failed for the Church set an extra biblical standard for evidence of faith. May we learn the lesson well and honor Christ by teaching the full counsel of God and engaging the church youth and urge them to make their calling and election sure. Thank you Barry for the important reminder.

    • Barry York September 19, 2017 at 11:10 am #

      Kent, this is another helpful insight into this history. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Josh B. September 24, 2017 at 6:04 am #

    I wonder if part of the problem is the “segregate to educate” philosophy promoted by youth ministry in general? While there are good reasons to have separate programming for youth, it seems wise to also promote opportunities where inter-generational fellowship and discipleship also occur (not either/or, but both/and).

    • Barry York September 26, 2017 at 11:18 am #

      Yes, I would agree with how you stated it.

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    […] The Half-Way Covenant & Whole-Hearted Youth Ministry “Baptists and Presbyterians can agree regarding one application of child baptism in church history. What was known as the Half-way Covenant was a bad idea. Yet from it we can gain a valuable lesson regarding the church’s gospel duty to young people.”  […]

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