Visible Saints: How Do We Know You’re a Christian?

Image of "Visible Saints" by Edmund S. Morgan

Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea
By Edmund S. Morgan
Cornell University Press, 1965
174 pages, softcover, $19.95

How do you know whether you are right with God? Many believers ask themselves this question. A related question is this: Can a church recognize those members who are truly converted? These are questions of peculiar importance in the American religious experience.

Quite at random at a recent sale of old books I discovered a volume by the 20th century historian and disciple of Perry Miller, Edmund S. Morgan, entitled Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. A quick skim through the pages convinced me that it was of immediate importance, despite having been written in 1965 about the ecclesiology of colonial New England 300 years previous. The Puritans cast long shadows at the dawning of the American age, and forged paths in the American consciousness which nearly four hundred years have not worn away.

Visible Saints: the Puritan Idea

After the English Reformation, the chief complaint of English Separatists (those who formed church fellowships outside of the Church of England) was “that the visible church in England stood too far from the invisible” (Morgan 10), although according to St. Augustine the “church visible” necessarily comprises both those predestined for salvation and those who only appear to be members of the household of faith. According to Augustine the church should exclude only “obvious and gross sinners” and only if they did not visibly repent (Morgan 3).

Both English Puritans and Separatists might at this time have been forgiven for some impatience over the purity of the church. The Church of England at the time of the Elizabethan Settlement was held together by state decree and in a state of some political turmoil. Some of the problems denounced by Puritans and Separatists included:

  • Incompetent, worldly, or even scandalously wicked ministers;
  • Worldly and scandalously sinful congregants admitted to the Lord’s Supper without reproof; and
  • Bishops and priests appointed by the state instead of by churches.

While Puritans attempted to reform these problems from within the Anglican churches, Separatists determined to leave the Anglican fellowship and form their own congregations. In addition to persecution from the civil authorities, they soon faced the question: How were they to determine who should be admitted to their congregational fellowship? Their answer to this questions is the “Idea” of Morgan’s title: an evolving set of qualifications for church membership first appearing in English and continental Separatist churches and reaching its full development in both Separatist and Puritan congregations in New England.

1. Separation

The first development of Morgan’s “Puritan Idea” happened pretty rapidly and organically in Separatist fellowships. “In the first strictly Separatist church of which there is record,” Morgan writes, “. . . the covenant seems to have consisted entirely in repudiating the Anglican church and forswearing attendance at Anglican services” (Morgan 36). Robert Browne’s church was “‘to forsake and denie all ungodliness and wicked fellowship and to refuse all ungodlie communion with wicked persons’” (Morgan 37). In the mind of the first Separatists, the Anglican church had failed to remove itself entirely from the corrupt practices and idolatrous “Romish” doctrines of its past, and thus could not be considered a true church.

2. Confession of Faith

Separatist churches began to require not only repudiation of ungodly (Anglican) fellowship but also a confession of faith. This was not merely a recited creed, but “required both understanding and belief” (Morgan 42), an intellectual assent to, and understanding of, church doctrine. Faith and obedience (outwardly godly living) were now the test of church membership. Children were required to show understanding of and assent to church doctrine before becoming communicant members. Holy Communion was not offered to the ignorant. Only “heresy or misconduct” were “ground for expulsion” (Morgan 48).

Anglicans responded that faithful church ministry, including the ministry of the Sacraments, might bring unbelievers in the pews to saving faith in Christ. Roger Ainsworth rejected this idea, maintaining that these unbelievers should not have been admitted as members without first showing saving faith (Morgan 55). He claimed that God was “a party to the church covenant.”

3. The Covenant of Grace

Meanwhile, the Puritans (those reformers who remained within the Church of England) developed a new and extremely important theological definition: the Covenant of Grace. This was the personal covenant of salvation “between God and every man who had saving faith.” Puritan theology and preaching began to be oriented around this covenant relationship between God and the individual believer. Separatists suggested that similar covenants existed between God and church congregations:

The church covenant, Ainsworth implied, paralleled the covenant of grace, the one being between God and a group of presumably saved individuals. That Ainsworth thought of church members as having saving faith he suggested again in his definition of a church, ‘every people called of God into covenant and communion with Christ, and one with another . . . is to be esteemed a true church of God: but they that are not so called and come into covenant with the Lord, howsoever they may profess many excellent truthes, yet want they the mayn essential thing which makes a true Church.’ (Morgan 55-56)

Yet, though Ainsworth believed a church ought to comprise a company of the faithful and required of prospective congregants a “confidence of their justification” (Morgan 56), he affirmed that “the hart no man knoweth but God alone” (Morgan 57). If a person assented to the Gospel truths and was not a scandalous liver, he was admitted to fellowship in Separatist congregations.

4. Experience of a Work of Grace

What became the next element of the Puritan Idea did not begin in Separatist circles. Puritans within the Church of England, seeking to impart true assurance to the regenerate of their flock; combat easy, false assurance; and aid men in searching out their spiritual state; developed what Morgan terms the “morphology of conversion” (Morgan 66): an intricate series of typical stages which the Christian could expect to experience in the process of conversion.

The Puritan “morphology of conversion” had something like ten stages. Morgan relies on the writings of the Puritan William Ames in describing it (Morgan 68-69).

  1. The first stage involved an “attendance on the ministry of the word,” sometimes “accompanied by some outward misfortune ‘to breake and subdue the stubbornness of our nature.’”
  2. This resulted in a “knowledge of the law,” that is “a general understanding of what is good and what is evil.”
  3. From this general knowledge of the Law resulted an “awareness of ‘his own peculiar and proper sins.’”
  4. From awareness of his own sin, he proceeded to “‘conviction’ of sin” in which the individual “perceived his helpless and hopeless condition and despaired of salvation”–a “‘legall feare.’”
  5. Any person might experience these first stages and not be converted. However, to the elect was then granted “‘a serious consideration of the promise of salvation, propounded and published in the Gospell.’”
  6. …after which “God then kindled a spark of faith in their hearts”
  7. The kindling of faith was not the end of the process. Rather, “the soul must fight against doubt and despair by ‘fervent, constant, and earnest invocation for pardon.’”
  8. Any pagan could grieve sin because of a fear of hell. But to the regenerate God granted an “‘Evangelicall sorrow,’ … ‘a grief for sin because it is sin.’”
  9. After this grief, “God gave a man ‘grace to endeavour to obey his commandments by a new obedience.’”
  10. Finally, the Christian received an enduring–though often troubled–assurance of salvation.

Puritans hastened to observe a difference between ‘false’ and ‘true’ assurance: “the assurance wrought by grace was easily confused with the false assurance or ‘security’ of the unregenerate.”

True assurance came only after attendance on the preaching of the word and only after a period of doubt and despair. . . . The faithful could always remember a time ‘when they had the spirit of bondage in themselves which wrought much feare,’ while those with false assurance ‘were never troubled with any feares or doubts in this way.’ (Morgan 69)

The irony is that a sense of perfect security in one’s salvation was not seen by the Puritans as a positive sign of spiritual health:

Perhaps the surest work distinguishing true assurance from false was its continuing imperfection: ‘the faithfull have not this assurance so perfect, [wrote Puritan Arthur Hildersham] but they are often troubled with doubts and feares. . . . But they that have this false assurance are most confident, and never have any doubts.’ . . . William Perkins went so far as to say that ‘To see and feele in our selves the want of any grace pertaining to salvation, and to be grieved therefore, is the grace itself.’ ( Morgan 70)

Though Puritan pastors could not restrict membership in Anglican churches by a test of saving faith, they did encourage people to examine themselves for it. Morgan writes, “While Ainsworth and John Robinson were groping toward a conception of the church as a company of those who possessed saving faith, non-Separatist theologians were simultaneously coming to the conclusion that saving faith not only could but should be tested” (Morgan 75). It remained for the American Puritans and Separatists to unite these two ideas.

The first English settlers in New England were a group of English Separatists (not Puritans) who we call the Pilgrims. Other various Separatist and Puritan groups followed quickly and settled in various parts of New England. The most prominent of these groups founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Puritan settlement.

Morgan shines as a historian of early America and I do not wish to repeat here every twist and turn of the early ecclesiology of New England. What matters is that within a generation, Puritan congregations in New England began to require of potential communicants (those admitted to the Lord’s Table) a recounting of their spiritual experience, expected in most cases to follow the pattern described above. This portion of Morgan’s book is fascinating reading and reveals the way in which new religious ideas quickly take hold and become almost indisputable in a very short period of time.

5. The Half-Way Covenant

As time went on, many children of the believers who had come to the New World could not, upon self-examination, find in themselves satisfactory evidences of spiritual conversion. Most continued to attend church and lived decent lives free from scandal. Yet, as Morgan puts it:

To judge from surviving records, it was uncommon for a man or woman to have the requisite religious experience before he was in his twenties. Often it came much later, and many otherwise good men and women never received it.
But if the holy spirit reached these men and women late or not at all, biological urges reached them early. They married young and had large families. When an unconverted child of a church member produced a child of his own, the minister of his church was presented with a problem . . . The new father (or mother) had been in some sense a member of the church. Was he still? If so, was he a member in a different sense than before? What about the child? Was the child a member? Should the child be baptized?
The questions were difficult to answer, because every answer generated several more questions. If a child who grew to physical maturity without receiving faith was to be considered no longer a member of the church, how and when should his expulsion take place? The fact was that he had acquired a child before he acquired faith was no sign that he would not eventually attain faith. Should the church meanwhile cast him out? . . . The New Englanders . . . had not correspondingly altered their conception of church discipline. Admonitions and excommunications were still applied only for misconduct or for openly expressed heretical ideas; no one suggested that anyone be excommunicated for failure to display signs of saving faith. To excommunicate him for having a child in lawful wedlock was palpably absurd. . . . The Puritans had in fact moved the church so far out of the world that it would no longer fit the biological facts of life. (Morgan 127-128)

But wait! one may object: The Puritans’ mistake was in baptizing children at all! This is a reasonable objection which I will address in my conclusion. For now, observe the way in which the Puritans attempted to solve the problem.

Thus was instigated the “Half-way covenant” (a name given it by both Separatist and Anglican critics) in which the child of a baptized congregant in good standing could be baptized, even if, by his lack of spiritual conversion, the parent could not himself be admitted to full sacramental membership. A two-tiered membership was established: the first tier being those who had experienced spiritual conversion, the second tier of those who had been baptized and were visibly pious but could not claim the experience of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work.

Solomon Stoddard was one clergyman who opposed the Half-Way Covenant. He believed, like the Anglicans, that the graces of Word and Sacrament could be Divine means for converting the unregenerate, and he had no intention of witholding grace from those in need of it. He was also, according to Morgan, a fiery revivalist who threw himself into the work of converting the unregenerate with “hellfire sermons” (Morgan 147). Stoddard was not alone in New England; there were many others who likewise advocated “open communion.”

Jonathan Edwards, Stoddard’s grandson and successor in the Northampton pulpit, inherited his revival fervor, but disputed strenuously his practice of open communion. The Half-way covenant did not satisfy him either, and he preached that only children of “visible saints” should be baptized.

How the Puritan Idea Affects Us Today

Many Americans have never heard of John Cotton, Henry Ainsworth, William Perkins, or even Jonathan Edwards. Why is this topic relevant to the present-day evangelical church?

Today’s evangelicals maintain, by way of religious understandings passed down from the Puritans, filtered through a couple of centuries worth of ‘awakenings,’ ‘revivals,’ and pietistic movements, the idea that in order for one to know that one is right with God one must have some kind of mystical experience of conversion which makes the Gospel personal and ‘real to’ one. “You ask me how I know he lives? / He lives within my heart,” claims the revivalist song. Besides being a frightful apologetic for the Resurrection, this lyric describes pretty well the flavor of spirituality in many Bible-believing churches, even those that have abandoned the schmaltzy late-Victorian hymnal in favor of more ‘relevant’ expressions of faith-via-personal-experience.

This kind of ‘knowing’ of Jesus may indeed indicate a true work of the Holy Spirit and true faith on the part of the believer. The problem with it is that it is utterly subjective and cannot be considered authoritative even by the one who experiences it. This claim hardly even needs support, since the frequent questionings of faith, rededications, and even rebaptisms of those who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus show that they themselves are often inclined to doubt the veracity of the experiences which back up their assurance.

Again, I do not disparage the experience itself, but I strongly contest the notion that it is in any way the universal birthright of the ecclesia militans, the church-in-the-world.

Furthermore, the American evangelical churches are at fault in the way they present the notions of salvation through personal experience (“getting saved”) and confirmation through various recurring charismatic experiences–such as receiving personal revelations or “words” from God and experiencing “baptism in the Holy Spirit”–as normative and essential parts of the believer’s walk with God. In the hearts of too many evangelical congregations, these kinds of emotive, hyper-spiritual experiences have replaced the signs that are true, effectual, and instituted by Jesus for the good of the church, i.e., the sacraments. And yet this mystical approach is in fact not evangelical at all.


Many who grew up in evangelical church settings can relate to the experience of participating in youth group assemblies in which pastors or peers have shared harrowing tales of their formerly wicked lives and thrilling experiences of spiritual conversion. The young person’s wish for a testimony as inspiring, or a spiritual experience as thrilling as these, may give way to unwarranted doubts, as the young person wonders whether he can be one of God’s chosen people without a tale of comparable intensity, or perhaps without a memorable experience of conversion at all. Testimony envy gives way to testimony angst.

Here we see how the Puritan idea remains a difficulty whether or not a church practices infant baptism. The dilemma of a church that baptizes only converted adults is no less severe. They are in the uncomfortable position of having to withhold not one but both sacraments from the apparently unconverted children of church members. Should these grown-up children, and their children, be excluded from the people of God on the basis of their lack of conversion experience?

My opinion is that they should not. Conversion experiences are a broken reed of support, sure to cut the hand of the one who leans on them. Christians and churches should not rely on such subjective experiences. Rather, renouncing in baptism the unfruitful works of the devil, Christians and congregations ought to depend wholly upon the grace of Jesus Christ and the assurance of his constancy through his ministry of word and sacrament.

The true “evangelical” Gospel is one of unmerited and freely offered salvation in Jesus Christ. In seeking to exclude unbelievers from their church fellowships the Puritans found themselves adding qualifications and expectations which Christ and the Apostles did not require. We are wise to observe their example and avoid doing the same.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

4 thoughts on “Visible Saints: How Do We Know You’re a Christian?”

  1. How does the practice of confirmation fit in this scheme? As a person baptized at nine or so, finding a personal relationship with Jesus at eleven, and confirmed into an Episcopalian church at twenty-four (and finding that families celebrated with the confirmed much like we celebrated at my baptism), I am curious.

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