The Halfway Covenant

Tuesday, January 08, 2008
The Halfway Covenant was a form of partial church membership created by New England Puritans in 1662. It was promoted in particular by the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, who felt that the people of the English colonies were drifting away from their original religious purpose. First-generation settlers were beginning to die out, while their children and grandchildren often expressed less religious piety, and more desire for material wealth.

Full membership in the Puritan (and tax-supported) church required an account of a conversion experience, and only persons in full membership could have their own children baptized.

In response, the Halfway Covenant provided a partial church membership for the children and grandchildren of church members. Those who accepted the Covenant, and agreed to follow the creed and rules of the church, could become church members without claiming a spiritual experience. These half-members could not vote on any issues within the church, although all members could participate in the sacrament of the Supper.

Puritan preachers hoped that this plan would maintain some of the church's influence in society, and that these 'half-way members' would see the benefits of full membership, be exposed to teachings and piety which would lead to the "born again" experience, and eventually take the full oath of allegiance. Many of the more religious members of Puritan society rejected this plan as they felt it did not fully adhere to the church's guidelines, and many of the target members opted to wait for a true conversion experience instead of taking what they viewed as a short cut.

Overall, religious piety began to decrease and secular values began to become more prevalent in colonial society.

Response to the Halfway Covenant may have sown the seeds for the First Great Awakening in the 1730s, launched by Stoddard's grandson Jonathan Edwards. Along with Calvinist George Whitefield, he preached that God is "in the now", and there must be a "urgent call for lanquid will", in response to the half will that the Halfway Covenant allows.


Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.


  1. Thank you for researching a little deeper.

    Those who don't know history. So true.

  2. Do you mean repeating it in the sense that if we admit to church membership those who are not committed to God, we will become weaker as a church body?

    I guess I would tend to agree with that.

    I can also see a temptation to exclusivity that might shut others out and make one that is in susceptible to pride don't you think?

  3. Linea - I grew up in a Baptist church were a substantial portion of the *membership* appeared to have heard that God was somewhere out there and they'd prefer it if He stayed that way.

    The idea of the halfway covenant was compromise.

    While ideas on what constitutes church member ship vary, to ME it means those that are formally committed to each other AND to the same set of goals and ideals. No live Christian faith will shut out those that are not saved, but it will also recognise that those outside of Christ cannot be part of The Church, how ever much they come along to church meetings.

  4. Toni,
    I agree with what you are saying and that the church needs people who are committed to God, each other and have common goals. But I also know that there are groups who use behavior as the standard of measurement of that committment and become exclusive and narrow and uninviting.

    And there is a group in our culture that are committed to following Christ but do not see the value in membership. Maybe they are not really committed enough to the common goals to see a need for their input at a membership level. Maybe that is equivalent to trying to be halfway members these days. Or is the problem with this generation's ideas about membership in all sorts of organizations?

  5. Not sure if this is on topic, but...

    I wonder if we can make a distinction between a sort of "club membership" and membership in the body of Christ. Historically, it seems to me, baptism was one's entrance into the body of Christ, the sign of membership. These days the sign of membership tends to be (though it certainly isn't always) a piece of paper handed over after intellectual assent to a handful of doctrinal points, whereas baptism seems kind of optional for church membership.

    I tend to think there is more meaning in the baptismal membership than in the piece of paper. Maybe that's a generational thing, I don't know.

    I would say that there is a fine line between not wanting to join a club and simply refusing to commit because that may require more of oneself than one is willing to give.

  6. Wise words, from Marc in his last sentence - just what I'd have said if I'd got there first. A few years back a UK sociologist, Grace Davey, coined the phrase 'believing without belonging' as a result of a survey into European attitudes to religion (NB religion, not faith). That seems to sum up lots of attitudes that I come across.

    I think Linea is right too about a wider cultural shift where people don't want to sign up formally to anything any more. Maybe we need to reclaim and re-emphasise the true meaning of covenant in defining our relationships as Christians rather than using words like membership.

  7. Wow I turn my head for a few hours and everybody talks.

    Some really good thinking there, much better than I would could come up with.

    I wonder if people don't want to "Join" precisely because we have emphasised the wrong kinds of things, like membership.

    For me, this piece is about the church watering down it's qualifiers so that we still get fresh meat in the door. I hate that we do that sometimes.

    and having said that, I also need to say that there are things that we do and ways that we do them that we need to lay down, so that they don't get in the way of peoples faith.

    Creating a "Lite" version of faith for those who don't want the real deal, at best only confuses everything. At worst it creates people who think they have real faith when they are only fooling themselves, and we helped them to be fooled.

  8. Thanks Randall, for stepping back and underlining the issues instead of arguing the semantics like I'd have done.

    In answer to Barb, Linea and Marc (as I think you're all aiming at the same point) as you suggest, there are groups around that see 'membership' as being synonymous with signing on the dotted line. I very much like the phrase Barb used of covenant relationship, and this is where I'd see being part of a specific church laying.

    Marc - defining things down a bit, I'd suggest that receiving Christ as saviour is the bit that joins you to the body of Jesus, and that baptism is an outward sign of that salvation. It gets interesting for someone like me, who has no proof I've ever been baptised and would think you somewhat odd if you required a certificate of baptism before I could join 'your' church. However it IS reasonable to expect that all those that wish to be part of a specific church have demonstrated their obedience to Jesus command by being baptised (you'd have to take their word for it!).

  9. I personally wouldn't think a certificate of baptism necessary---I would take a person's word for it, because certainly not everyone would have such a thing.

    I'm thinking of a girl who became a Christian after hanging out with our "Christian" treeplanting crews for a couple of years. She was baptized in a river somewhere deep in the boreal forest of northern BC or Alberta. (Quite a beautiful and moving event, actually.) I'm quite certain she did not receive a certificate of any kind! (And I really hope that she wasn't asked by some church leader to get re-baptized because she had no proof!)

    I have no firm stance on this issue, of course. I'm just talking about what appears to have been the historical precedent. The early church, as I understand it, did not allow an unbaptized person to participate in communion, which I assume to mean that baptism was the "membership requirement". Biblically, it seems to me that more often than not receiving Christ and baptism went hand-in-hand: "repent and be baptised" was the call.

    Anyway...I'm not trying to be argumentative. This is an issue of interest to me.


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