Church members today often display an amazingly cavalier attitude toward church attendance. It is not uncommon for churches that run 200 in attendance on Sunday mornings to have only half of that number back on Sunday night and even fewer for the mid-week service. Church membership was treated much more seriously in Baptist churches four hundred years ago.
The following is from Adam Taylor’s The History of the English General Baptists [London: 1818], Volume I:
The general Baptists of the 16th and 17th centuries so respected the nature and importance of assemblies for public worship that the wilful neglect of them was considered as disorderly conduct, which called for the censure of the church. A constant inspection was exercised over the attendance of the members: persons were appointed to take down the names of the absentees, and report them to the elders; and nothing but reasons of obvious importance were admitted as a sufficient apology for their non-attendance. When the societies grew numerous, the members were ranged into districts, according, to the proximity of their habitations: and proper persons appointed to superintend each district. If any member did not appear in his place, on the Lord’s-day, he was certain of a visit, in the course of the week, from one of the inspectors of the district, to call him to account for his absence. These regulations were rendered effectual, by being acted upon with steadiness, impartiality, and decision; and, for nearly a century, contributed much to the order and prosperity of the general baptist churches.
In 1655, an “Order” was made, by the general consent of the congregation at Fenstanton, that “if any member of this congregation shall absent himself from the assembly of the same congregation, upon the first day of the week, without manifesting a sufficient cause, he shall be looked upon as an offender, and proceeded with accordingly. At the same meeting, it was devised, that, if any member should, at any time, have any extraordinary occasion to hinder him from the assembly, he would certify the congregation of the same before hand, for the prevention of jealousy.” And, in 1658, the same society, after considering the case of a wife who had been kept back, by the threatenings of her husband, concluded “that, unless a person was restrained by force, it was no excuse for absenting himself from the assemblies of the congregation.” Resolutions of a similar purport are frequent in the records of these churches: and numbers of cases prove that they were constantly enforced.