Until 1662 and the introduction of the Half-Way Covenant, the Congregationalists and other Puritans had demanded evidence of a conversion experience as a prerequisite to church membership. But, in the midst of spiritual decline in the latter half of the seventeenth century, they had compromised that requirement in order to replenish their dying congregations.
The Half-Way Covenant allowed children to be baptized into the church on two conditions:
(1) The parents or grandparents had given verbal assent to the covenant and
(2) the parents had not lived lives that would be considered “scandalous.”
The requirement for evidence of a conversion experience had been abandoned. At first, those brought into the church via the Half-Way Covenant were indeed half-way members—they were considered to be a part of the church body but could not partake of the Lord’s Supper.
In just a short time, through the influence of Solomon Stoddard, this restriction also was removed. Stoddard declared that the Sacrament, in some sense, drew men to Christ and for that reason, could not be denied to any who were part of the covenant. Finally, the Brattle Street Church in Boston removed all bars to membership in the church for those who had entered as Half-Way members.
Since the Awakening placed so much emphasis on the conversion experience, it would be expected that the revival would bring an end to support for the Half-Way Covenant, This, however, was not to be. Instead, “in churches which seemed to share most deeply in the Awakening, the Half-Way Covenant continued with unabated vigor after the revival ceased.”
C. C. Goen suggested that this question of regenerate membership was a leading cause of separation and that separation was more likely to occur in churches that had been most touched by revival spirit. The initial separation that drew the battle lines of revivalism and anti-revivalism did not carry the reformation to its logical conclusion. Revivalism, in itself, was not enough. The extreme New Light could not condone the acceptance of non-regenerate members.
William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in History (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2001), 108.
Half-Way Covenant, religious-political solution adopted by 17th-century New England Congregationalists, also called Puritans, that allowed the children of baptized but unconverted church members to be baptized and thus become church members and have political rights. Early Congregationalists had become members of the church after they could report an experience of conversion. Their children were baptized as infants, but, before these children were admitted to full membership in the church and permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper, they were expected to also give evidence of a conversion experience.
Many never reported a conversion experience but, as adults, were considered church members because they had been baptized, although they were not admitted to the Lord’s Supper and were not allowed to vote or hold office.
Whether the children of these baptized but unconverted church members should be accepted for baptism became a matter of controversy. In 1657 a ministerial convention suggested that such children should be accepted for baptism and church membership, and in 1662 a synod of the churches accepted the practice, which in the 19th century came to be called the Half-Way Covenant.
This step increased the diminishing minority of church members in the colonies, extended church discipline over more people, and encouraged a greater number to seek conversion and work for the benefit of the church. Although this solution was accepted by the majority of the churches in New England, it was opposed by a vocal minority. The practice was abandoned by most churches in the 18th century when Jonathan Edwards and other leaders of the Great Awakening taught that church membership could be given only to convinced believers.