I feel bound to present to you the case of Bethesda. It involves to my mind the whole question of association with brethren, and for this very simple reason, that if there is incapacity to keep out that which has been recognized as the work and power of Satan, and to guard the beloved sheep of Christ against it—if brethren are incapable of this service to Christ, then they ought not to be in any way owned as a body to whom such service is confided: their gatherings would be really a trap laid to ensnare the sheep. But I will not suppose this, my heart would not; nor will I suppose that the influence or reputation of individuals will induce them to do in one case what they would not do in another. I press therefore the position of Bethesda on brethren. It is at this moment acting in the fullest and most decided way as the supporter of Mr. Newton, and the evil associated with him, and in the way in which the enemy of souls most desires it should be done. The object of Mr. Newton and his friends is not now openly to propagate his doctrine in the offensive form in which it has roused the resistance of every godly conscience that cared for the glory and person of the blessed Lord, but to palliate and extenuate the evil of the doctrine, and get a footing as Christians for those who hold it, so as to be able to spread it and put sincere souls off their guard. In this way precisely Bethesda is helping them in the most effectual way they can: I shall now state how. They have received the members of Ebrington Street with a positive refusal to investigate the Plymouth errors. And at this moment the most active agents of Mr. Newton are assiduously occupied amongst the members of Bethesda, in denying that Mr. Newton holds errors, and explaining and palliating his doctrines, and removing any apprehension of them from the minds of saints, and successfully occupied in it. Mr. Müller has declared openly that Mr. James Harris was doing a work of darkness, the steps he took in exposing Mr. Newton’s error, though he had not given himself the trouble to enquire, from those acquainted with them, the circumstances under which it took place. Mr. Müller stated to the saints that Mr. Newton had retracted publicly before God and the world, with the fullest confession, the error he had held; which every one acquainted with the facts knows to be as contrary to those facts as any statement can possibly be. And I must add that Mr. Müller, in justifying Mr. Newton in this way, without informing himself by either studying the tracts or reading the answer to, or enquiring of those who were dissatisfied with, Mr. Newton’s retractation, was evidently acting with the utmost prejudice, and misleading the saints by it. It is remarkable to shew the practical working of it that as Mr. Muller was stating this in the assembly, a member of it present said to one sitting by them, That is not so, for Mr. Newton was diligently persuading me of the truth of his doctrine, as I was sitting by his side at tea the other evening.
A paper was read, signed by Messrs. Craik and Muller, and eight others, to the body at Bethesda, in which they diligently extenuate and palliate Mr. Newton’s doctrine, though refusing investigation of it, and blame as far as they can those who have opposed it. I do not charge Mr. Muller with himself holding Mr. Newton’s errors. He was pressed to say in public what he had said in private of Mr. Newton’s tracts, and at first refused. Afterwards he declared that he had said there were very bad errors, and that he did not know to what they would lead. Upon what grounds persons holding them are admitted and the errors refused to be investigated, if such be his judgment, I must leave every one to determine for themselves. I only ask, Is it faithfulness to Christ’s sheep? Further, while it is true that Mr. Craik may be by no means prepared to assert that Mr. Newton’s doctrines are all according to the truth of God, and that I have no reason to say that he is not sound in the faith, yet it is certain that he is so far favourably disposed to Mr. Newton’s views, and in some points a partaker of them, as to render it impossible that he could guard with any energy against them. The result is, that members of Ebrington Street, active and unceasing agents of Mr. Newton, holding and justifying his views, are received at Bethesda; and the system which so many of us have known as denying the glory of the Lord Jesus (and that, when fully stated, in the most offensive way) and corrupting the moral rectitude of every one that fell under its power—that this system, though not professed, is fully admitted and at work at Bethesda. This has taken place in spite of its driving out a considerable number of undeniably godly brethren, whose urgent remonstrance was slighted; in spite of the known confessions of the brethren once involved and teachers of Mr. Newton’s doctrine, and now through the Lord’s mercy delivered from it; in spite of the strong and urgent statements of Mr. Chapman, of Barnstaple, who above all enjoyed the confidence of the brethren at Bethesda; and in spite of all that has passed in the way of discovery of moral dishonesty connected with it. I had nothing whatever to say to the original movement of the brethren who objected at Bristol, and was long wholly ignorant of it, but having stated to Mr. Muller that I should gladly go to Bethesda, I was, on learning the facts, obliged to write and say I could not. This led to a correspondence, and at last to my seeing the brethren, Muller and Craik, so that all this has been, as far as I am concerned, fully before them. There has a great deal taken place and passed very painful and unsatisfactory; but I go on the broad ground of faithfulness to the whole church of God, and each individual sheep beloved of Christ, that (as far as we are concerned) they may be guarded against what so many of us know to be horribly subversive of His glory, and all moral rectitude in His saints. Now, beloved brethren, I see in scripture that one effect of faith is (whatever difficulties it may produce, or however it may seem to obstruct the removal of them, thereby forcing us to wait on God) to make us respect what God respects; I do not therefore desire in the smallest degree to diminish the respect and value which any may feel personally for the brethren Craik and Muller, on the grounds of that in which they have honoured God by faith. Let this be maintained as I desire to maintain it, and have maintained in my intercourse with them; but I do call upon brethren by their faithfulness to Christ, and love to the souls of those dear to Him in faithfulness, to set a barrier against this evil. Woe be to them if they love the brethren Muller and Craik or their own ease more than the souls of saints dear to Christ! And I plainly urge upon them that to receive anyone from Bethesda (unless in any exceptional case of ignorance of what has passed) is opening the door now to the infection of the abominable evil from which at so much painful cost we have been delivered. It has been formally and deliberately admitted at Bethesda under the plea of not investigating it (itself a principle which refuses to watch against roots of bitterness), and really palliated. And if this be admitted by receiving persons from Bethesda, those doing so are morally identified with the evil, for the body so acting is corporately responsible for the evil they admit. If brethren think they can admit those who subvert the person and glory of Christ, and principles which have led to so much untruth and dishonesty, it is well they should say so, that those who cannot may know what to do. I only lay the matter before the consciences of brethren, urging it upon them by their fidelity to Christ. And I am clear in my conscience towards them. For my own part I should neither go to Bethesda in its present state, nor while in that state go where persons from it were knowingly admitted. I do not wish to reason on it here, but lay it before brethren, and press it on their fidelity to Christ and their care of His beloved saints.
Ever yours in His grace, J.N.D.
P. S. While I go upon and press the plain broad ground of the bounden duty of guarding the sheep of Christ from the secret bringing in of that which horribly denies His glory and corrupts and demoralizes His saints, I ask if it is not a monstrous thing that the brethren at Bethesda, on the ground of refusing to investigate, should force hundreds of brethren and numerous gatherings of them, to receive those from whom they have separated after the most painful and trying enquiry, as holding doctrines subversive of Christ, and guilty of conduct unrepented of, and which Christians could not associate with? And they have gone farther than not investigating it—they have allowed the most elaborate eulogies of Mr. Newton before the assembly, and refused permission to touch upon the doctrine or shew its evil.