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Covenant and Conversion

Peter J. Wallace

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church requires all communicant members to make a public profession of faith before the congregation. While the continental Reformed churches have had this practice for centuries, it is a fairly recent innovation in the Presbyterian tradition. As Samuel Miller put it in 1847, "Our fathers of the Church of Scotland know nothing of the public parade in the middle aisle now so common." While the form that the OPC uses is drawn from the continental practice, the roots of public profession in the Presbyterian church go back well into the nineteenth century, and are deeply entwined with the changing views of covenant and conversion.

The Context: the Proposed Revision of the Book of Discipline of 1858

Presbyterian government and discipline was originally formulated under the parish system in Scotland where virtually every resident of the parish was a baptized member of the same church. Even after the American church had made several changes, the principles in the Presbyterian Book of Church Order did not always correspond to the practices of American Presbyterians. The conversionist piety of the nineteenth century rendered certain traditional Presbyterian practices nearly obsolete. The proposed revisions to the Book of Discipline, offered to the 1858 General Assembly, suggest that Old School Presbyterians were wrestling with how to maintain a balance between their contemporary setting and their more covenantal heritage.

At the Assembly of 1859 the committee, represented by its chairman, James Henley Thornwell, explained the most significant changes. The committee wanted to produce a shorter, more direct statement of Presbyterian discipline. Removing many statements of principle, the committee believed that the Book of Discipline should refrain from "preaching" or explaining the principles of discipline. "The doctrine upon which discipline is founded, and the motives with which it should be enforced, must all be presupposed." The new book would focus less on principles and more on statutes. It included significant changes in principle as well.

One of the most radical proposals was the removing of baptized non-communicant members from the discipline of the church. Thornwell argued that "it was no more illogical to exempt them from discipline, than to exclude them from the Lord's table." He claimed that a church member only becomes subject to church discipline through a profession of faith. Since a profession of faith was required for admittance to the Lord's Supper, he argued that such profession should be required for discipline as well.

The new book also proposed allowing communicant members to renounce membership by stating that they no longer believed themselves converted. Such persons then could be dropped from the membership rolls without a trial. Since Thornwell viewed the church as the assembly of the converted, it made no sense to make the unconverted remain. "It had been objected besides, that this right of withdrawal at pleasure made the church a voluntary society. He was surprised at such an objection. The glory of their church was that it was a voluntary society. God wanted no worshippers but voluntary worshippers." Thornwell argued that no censure should be inflicted upon the spiritually dead. "He would have them bear in mind that the church did not punish-it did not bear the sword; its censures were designed as penitential-as a means of restoring an erring brother." The unconverted were not brethren at all. "The proper way to deal with a member who wished to withdraw, was not to drive him out disgraced by censure, but simply to reduce him from the position of professed believer, to the condition of a non-professor-to the condition of the baptized children of the church-members over whom the church is watching-with whose errors it is bearing, and whom it is ever remembering in its prayers."

1. The Status of Baptized Children

The change that called forth the most controversy was the proposal to move baptized children outside of the discipline of the church. Many were initially sympathetic. The editors of the Central Presbyterian noted that the revision would subject only communicant members to judicial proceedings. Since they had never heard of a case where judicial proceedings were instituted against a baptized non-communicant, it would not be much of a change. Besides, they claimed that it would be useless "to excommunicate one who has never communicated and who has no desire to communicate." When the Virginia Baptist newspaper claimed that this was "a manifest departure from Presbyterian Pedo-baptism of the Old School," the Central Presbyterian replied that baptized persons were still church members—only not subject to judicial process. The editors insisted that discipline was a far broader term than mere judicial process, and since baptized children were disciples, they were properly under the discipline of the church, in this broader sense. But in the end, they regarded this revision as simply bringing the book into conformity with Presbyterian practice. Indeed, in 1853, the Synod of Pittsburgh had declared that baptized children were not properly the subjects of church discipline.

Others, however, thought that the Virginia Baptists had a point. J. E. L. argued in the Philadelphia Presbyterian that forbidding discipline practically denied that baptized infants were in fact "members of the household of faith." Many feared that the change would move the church towards a more Baptist conception of church membership. The Home and Foreign Record reprinted an excerpt from the Rev. Joshua H. McIlvaine's article in the Princeton Review warning that such baptistic views of the relation of children to the church "was deeply embedded . . . in the principles of the Puritans." The author insisted that children should be treated as though they were "presumably of the elect," being trained under the teaching and discipline of the church. He objected to the tendency in Presbyterian churches to speak of children "joining the church" when they came for their first communion, noting that revivalism and other "spasmodic efforts" had been relied upon rather than "religious education and discipline, the Divine ordinance to which the promise of regeneration and salvation for the children of believers" was attached.

Concerned that "baptistic" views were growing in the Presbyterian Church, an anonymous author in the Southern Presbyterian Review set forth the case that all baptized members should be subject to the discipline of the church. He argued that failure to profess faith could be grounds for discipline at a certain point. He disagreed sharply with Thornwell that "voluntary assent" was necessary for discipline. Presbyterians had historically rejected the idea that the church was a "voluntary society." Further, the emphasis on personal profession destroyed the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism. "If the act of the parents in bringing the child under the covenant of baptism cannot properly place him under church jurisdiction, except it be confirmed by the child's own assent, why should they perform it in his infancy at all? Let the baptismal covenant be something, or nothing." Thornwell's proposal gave away too much to the Independents and Baptists. Rejecting the voluntary principle, he insisted that "God has not given to any human soul the right to choose whether he will belong to His visible kingdom or not."

In reply, Thornwell insisted that he was not challenging the doctrine of infant baptism—he agreed that all baptized persons were "bona fide members of the Church." But just as baptized children were excluded from the "privilege of the Lord's Table," he argued that they should also be excluded from the "the disability of judicial discipline"? Both, he claimed, were determined by profession of faith: "To those who profess no faith in Christ it is as unmeaning and absurd to dispense the spiritual censures of the Church, as it would be to tie a dead man to the whipping post and chastise him with rods." For Thornwell, profession of faith included a claim to be converted: "The possession or non-possession of faith divides the Church into two classes so widely apart, that it is simply ridiculous to think of treating them in the same way." The church seeks the conversion of baptized children, who should be considered dead in their sins. The converted are "already alive, and are to be dealt with as living men," whereas baptized children are "dead, and the whole scope of spiritual effort is to bring them to Him who can quicken the dead. Discipline is for the living and not for the dead." Indeed, Thornwell argued that his opponents erred in seeing discipline as "a punishment for the offender." Rather, Thornwell insisted that "There are no punishments in the Church of God, it is founded upon a dispensation of grace and not of law." Indeed, "When men show by their contumacy that they were not sons, they are then cut off from the Church, on the very ground that they are incapable of discipline." Excommunication, for Thornwell, was not really discipline at all, but the declaration that discipline had failed.

Thornwell particularly objected to the idea that baptized members could be disciplined for failing to profess faith. Citing the Directory for Worship, he agreed that "when they come to years of discretion, if they be free from scandal, appear sober and steady and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord's body, they ought to be informed, it is their duty and their privilege to come to the Lord's Supper" Thornwell stood within the historic Presbyterian mainstream when he claimed that baptized children should not be disciplined for lack of profession and declared that the church should not "revoke their privileges, but bear with them as patiently as her Master;" but he departed from the traditional view because he failed to see that the Directory did not require a profession of conversion. Indeed, the Directory did not even require a public profession, but only that they be "free from scandal, appear sober and steady and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord's body." But for many on both sides of the debate this requirement had long been overlooked.

2. Profession and Discipline: the Edwardsean Background

Thornwell's proposal grew out of a gradual alteration of Presbyterian sacramental theology and practice. For over a generation, Presbyterians had been diverging from the formal requirements of their Directory for Worship. Presbyterians had traditionally taught that baptism gave "an interest in and a right unto" the Lord's Table, which right could be exercised by faith. At baptism the infant entered into covenant with God and with the church. Therefore all baptized persons were members of the church. Admission to the Lord's Table did not change the person's relation to the church, but was merely the proper response of the one who had been baptized into Christ. This approach had grown out of the parish system in the established church of Scotland, where virtually every member of the community was also a member of the church. Prior to the advent of revivalism in Scotland in the eighteenth century, it was common to have 75-80 per cent of the adult population of the parish partake during communion. Revivalism would gradually alter Scottish practice in some places, but its effect in America was quicker and more comprehensive due to the voluntary nature of the church.

In 1857 Charles Hodge suggested that a careful analysis of Presbyterian baptismal statistics over the past fifty years indicated that the Old School was seeing a fourfold decline in the number of infant baptisms. While the birthrate had dropped perhaps 50% since 1800, that was inadequate to explain the dramatic drop in the baptismal rate. But traditional Presbyterian baptismal practices had changed considerably since 1800. Through the eighteenth century Presbyterians had baptized the children of all members, and since all baptized persons were considered members, they did not require parents to profess to be converted before bringing their children for baptism.

Edwardsian influence led to a growing number of Presbyterians who would only baptize the children of those who had personally professed to be converted. When the Synod of New York and Philadelphia refused to endorse the Edwardsean view in the 1770s, the Rev. Jacob Green formed the independent Morris Presbytery in 1780. In 1794 the General Assembly insisted that all that was necessary was a "visible and credible profession of Christianity," refusing to require a profession of conversion. Nonetheless, by the 1810s a number of younger ministers were switching to the Edwardsean practice. Jacob's son, Ashbel Green, however, returned to the Presbyterian church and defended the traditional Presbyterian practice, resisting his father's innovations throughout his life.

After the excision of the New School, the baptismal rate increased slightly because the New School was largely Edwardsean in its baptismal practice, whereas the Old School was divided. By 1857, however, many Old School churches had adopted the Edwardsean plan of baptizing only the children of communicant members—and only allowing those who believed themselves to be converted to become communicant members. The traditionalists were now in the minority. Hodge's statistics reflected this clear change in Presbyterian baptismal practice.

All changes in practice have effects on the theology of the church. The emphasis on conversion as a prerequisite for both the Lord's Table and the baptism of one's children led to a corresponding decrease of attention to the nurture of baptized children. It is perhaps not accidental that the early nineteenth century saw a declining emphasis on catechetical training, and a growing emphasis upon "Sunday school" as a means of converting children.

By 1841, "L" was concerned that many Presbyterians did not consider baptized children to be true members. In response he declared, "There are no empty forms in the institutions of our holy religion; there is a living, practical import in every ordinance. But where is the efficiency? where the great utility of this covenant relation, when parents and pastors and church sessions, for the most part, treat it as a mere name, a theoretic not a practical relation?" Urging the church to take its covenant obligations more seriously, he urged the church to consider baptized children as "indeed 'baptized into Christ.'"

Throughout the 1840s discussion had continued as to the nature and import of baptism. The Charleston Observer reflected the New England influence in a debate between "Justice" and "Discipulus." Discipulus insisted that "The seed of unbelievers are not regarded as fit subjects for the ordinance of baptism"; therefore only the children of communicant members should be baptized. Justice, however, pointed out that this was not the historic Reformed practice. Citing Samuel Rutherford and Theodore Beza, he argued that all who professed the true religion should have their children baptized—and a professor was "one who having been baptized and thus incorporated into the visible Church, makes an outward profession of his faith by a continued attendance upon public worship." If baptized persons were truly members of the church, then so long as they were a part of the covenant community, their children should also be baptized. Both sides acknowledged that baptism was a sign of the covenant, but for those influenced by New England theology, the covenant was mediated directly through the parent's individual faith, while for traditional Presbyterians, a profession of faith included their continued attendance upon the means of grace.

In 1847, Horace Bushnell published Discourses on Christian Nurture, a pamphlet that caused no small stir in New England for its attack on the premises of revivalism. Charles Hodge responded by suggesting that while Bushnell's views might be "strange" and "distorted" in certain respects, his "organic" treatment of the relationship of the child to the church had a downright "'Old school' cast." While disagreeing with Bushnell's naturalistic mode of expression, he agreed entirely with the basic thrust of Bushnell's argument, endorsing "a confident expectation, in the use of the appointed means, that the children of believers will become truly the children of God." While appreciative of the effects of revivals, Hodge objected that under the revival model, many "seem to regard this alternation of decline and revival as the normal condition of the church," forgetting the regular means of grace.

3. Profession and Discipline: Excommunicating Non-Communicants

The changing understanding of the relationship between baptized children and the church is illustrated in the 1856 debate between George D. Armstrong and "Old School," over the issue of whether baptized children could be excommunicated. Armstrong argued that while baptized children were subject to "discipline," this did not include judicial discipline. Indeed, he agreed with Thornwell that baptized children cannot be removed from the "communion" of the church because they have never been received into communion in the first place. Baptized non-communicants have no "vital union with Christ," and so they are shut out from the table. Armstrong took a literal definition of the word and argued that excommunication cut one off from the communion of the church.

"Old School" replied that scripture and church order defined excommunication more broadly than just being cut off from the "communion of the church." Rather, it cut one off from the church itself. He took four weeks to trace the exegetical and historical understanding of excommunication, demonstrating that "the term 'excommunicated' is equivalent to 'being destroyed from among the people,' and the former expression is used instead of the latter because it is shorter and more convenient." Since baptized children formed part of the visible church, they were, by definition, subject to the penalty of excommunication if they refused to "hear the Lord Jesus Christ."

Armstrong replied by citing Thornwell: "The baptized non-professor is actually in the very position in relation to the sacraments and communion of the church, in which excommunication put the professing offender. The key is turned and both are shut out from the inner sanctuary." Nonetheless, Armstrong also agreed with Hodge's presumption of election—that the church baptizes a person because "we presume he is one of the elect."

In their lengthy debate over the meaning of excommunication and whether baptized non-communicants could suffer it, both assumed that if discipline were applied to non-communicants, then it would require the church to excommunicate those who failed to profess faith. This reflects the degree to which Edwardsean principles had gained a foothold in the Old School. As covenant theology became more and more identified with individual conversion, the idea of an adult non-communicant member was becoming increasingly difficult to hold together with the idea that all baptized persons were full members. The Thornwellians, therefore, reduced baptized non-communicants to nominal members, while their opponents sought to eliminate the category of adult non-communicants altogether.

4. What Is a Profession of Faith?

Only a few recognized the false dichotomy. The Rev. J. G. Shepperson was one. He published a defense of the traditional Presbyterian view in the Southern Presbyterian Review in 1853. The editors (who included Thornwell), noted that they preferred the Edwardsean view, but would allow Shepperson to present his case. Shepperson argued that "A Christian profession does not consist, either wholly or in part, in a declaration that he who makes it either is, or believes himself to be, a regenerate person." Shepperson rejected the claim that "the Church is to consist solely of regenerate persons," and fretted that Thornwell and others claimed that members could dissolve their connection with the church simply by claiming to be unconverted. He pointed to both the Old and New Testaments, where professions of faith made no claims to regeneration or conversion but simply declared belief in "the Lord Jesus."

Therefore, Shepperson argued, "The Church is the visible kingdom of God, distinguished from every other society by this important circumstance, that all her members, and no others, are bound by a solemn and public covenant to the evangelical service of Jehovah." Through baptism, each member is obligated to keep covenant with God: "As it is by baptism one is made a member of the Church, it is, of course, by that ordinance he is brought into this covenant. And a Christian profession is simply a cordial and open acknowledgement of the obligation which the covenant imposes." Shepperson emphasized the objective reality of the sacraments. Whether infant or adult, baptism "is the same, and its symbolical meaning the same; moreover, it seals the same promises, and imposes the same obligation."

Likewise, Shepperson argued that very young children could make valid profession of faith: "it cannot be consistently maintained concerning any human being, that he is too young to become a communicant, unless it is maintained that he is likewise too young to become an evangelical believer; and that the command to believe has, as yet, no application to his case." In reply to those who claimed that children were "not competent to transact serious business," Shepperson argued that "a child is capable of deciding, which is preferable, the service of Christ, or the service of Satan." Indeed, he argued that it was "in the Church we enjoy those means which the Saviour has appointed for confirming the souls of the disciples; hence the more pressing the danger, the more urgent the necessity for such a connexion." Therefore the only proper ground of excommunication was when someone explicitly, by word or deed, "renounced the baptismal covenant. . .his allegiance to the Lord Jesus." While Thornwell might wish to allow a member to withdraw, Shepperson argued that withdrawal from the church was nothing less than excommunication—and excommunication required an "explicit avowal" that the offender was an apostate—an enemy of Christ.

5. The Creation of a New Ritual: Public Profession

But as Presbyterians gradually adopted the New England practice of requiring a personal profession of conversion, they also began adopting the Congregationalist ritual of public profession as well. The Presbyterian Form of Government stated that the session had the power to receive members. Traditionally this had been done by examination. The only public ritual that accompanied the admission of a person to the Lord's Table was the Lord's Supper itself. Gradually, however, Presbyterians began to imitate the rite of public profession found in the New England Congregational churches. Predictably, the New School took the lead, but even they were cautious. In 1865, the New School General Assembly declared that new members were received by the vote of the session, and except in the case of new converts who needed to be baptized, no further rite was required. Nonetheless, they permitted sessions to "prescribe a public profession of faith before the whole church as a convenient usage, and for this purpose may employ a church confession and covenant." But they insisted that these public professions were entirely optional and must never be presented as though this were the real entrance into church membership. The reunited General Assembly of 1872 added that if a session chose to have a public profession for covenant youth it must show a clear distinction from that used for public professions associated with adult baptisms. The Presbyterian church, though influenced by congregational forms, was still intent on keeping the sacrament of baptism distinct from its new rites of public profession.

But these official developments simply reflected the growing practice of the church. Numerous churches were creating a new ritual in Presbyterian worship—the public profession of faith. But these changes did not come without objections. In 1847 Samuel Miller declared that the practice of receiving members by public profession was "not a child of Presbyterianism, but wholly inconsistent with it, and the real offspring of Congregationalism. . . . The church with us is regulated by the Session, made up of representatives of the church members." Miller went on to insist that "Our fathers of the Church of Scotland know nothing of the public parade in the middle aisle now so common."

Several presbyteries also weighed in on the issue. In 1855 the Presbytery of Elizabethtown in New Jersey wrote a letter to all sessions throughout the Old School, urging them to return to the Presbyterian practice of receiving communicants directly by the session, "without receiving publicly on consenting to a confession read to them." In 1856 the Presbytery of Cincinnati received a complaint regarding the practice of the Seventh Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati which had permitted the public profession of baptized persons at the same time as the baptism of new converts. One observer commented, "in coming to the ordinance of the Lord's supper for the first time nothing is required of them in the constitution of the church, but simply, 'that they shall be examined as to their knowledge and piety.' That is all." Indeed, he suggested that anything more communicates the wrong message. He feared that this would "necessarily lead to error in doctrine as well as disorder in practice." New rituals invariably led to new theology. By introducing the innovation of public profession, some feared that Old School Presbyterians were functionally creating a new sacrament.

In 1862 "A True Presbyterian" objected that many Kentucky churches had begun to "ask the member or members received, to stand up in the aisle or pew, and give their assent to certain articles, and make pledges in regard to their future conduct, and avow their sense of the fearful responsibility connected with a public profession of religion." He argued that this approach placed the focus on the new communicant himself rather than Christ. The session should call him to fix his eyes on Christ as the source of his hope, and not point him to his own profession. Further, it "conveys the impression that the person thus assenting is then and thus introduced into the Church. Whereas, according to the theory of the Presbyterian Church, such an one was 'engrafted into Christ,' and partook of the benefits, (to some extent) of the New Covenant, and became members of the visible Church, when baptized." In addition, he said that such public professions created a new catechism for the church, ignoring the church's catechisms. The editor, Stuart Robinson, concurred that the practice was foreign to Presbyterian doctrine. He pointed out that the Synod of Kentucky had "formally censured the use of the abbreviated creeds framed by pastors for such purpose" many years before.

6. The Consent of the Governed?

The Thornwellian view assumed a theory of republicanism that insisted upon the consent of the governed—or in this case, the consent of the disciplined. William Engles, editor of the Presbyterian, agreed with Thornwell that baptized children were not proper subjects of discipline: "they have made no covenant vows; they have never, by any act of their own, acknowledged their subjection to the authorities of the Church." While admitting that they had a preferred status to the heathen, Engles argued that baptized children were "heirs of promises which they have not yet embraced." As such they had the "status of avowed unbelievers," and were considered "dead in trespasses and sins." Further, excommunication would be pointless, since "the baptized nonprofessor is actually in the very position in relation to the sacraments and communion of the Church, in which excommunication puts the professing offender."

But others objected to this line of reasoning. "Conservative" wrote in the Presbyterian objecting to the "radical" implications of this change. Claiming that the "consent of the governed" was not accurate even in politics, he pointed out that we have no choice as to whether we will be born into God's covenant, any more than whether we will be born into civil citizenship." A citizen cannot avoid the penalties of the law by claiming that he did not agree to it personally. Further, "Conservative" wondered what the church could then do about gross immorality in a baptized person? Thornwell had argued that the church only has jurisdiction of baptized persons through their parents—but what happens under that theory when they reach the age of 21? "It is incorrect to say that our system of government predicates discipline on the possession of spiritual life in its subject, and that its object is only to reclaim the backslider and recall to repentance." Thornwell had failed to articulate the correct doctrine of discipline: "A just excommunication of a church-member proceeds on the supposition that he has now done something so thoroughly inconsistent and obdurate that it shows he is not a true child of God." Another object of discipline, therefore, was to lop off dead branches. But "Conservative" did not then side with those who desired to discipline adult noncommunicants for unbelief. "As long as they live morally, and attend the means of grace regularly, the privileges of that minor citizenship in Zion will by no means be cut off by expulsion." Standing firmly with Hodge, Shepperson and McGill, "Conservative" refused to surrender the traditional Presbyterian doctrine of children in the covenant.


David McKinney, editor of the Presbyterian Banner of Pittsburgh, summarized the concerns of many when he claimed that Thornwell's view "unchurches our baptized youth." Appalled that Thornwell would consider baptized children to be "of the world," and no better than excommunicants, McKinney declared that Thornwell had "no right so to speak of the children of the Church. They are born in the family. They are the offspring of God's handmaidens. He says of them: They are mine." He admitted that the church's practice fell short of this doctrine, but that simply meant that "We have been sinners against the Word of God and our Standards; and now the effort is being made to alter our Standards, so as to make them conform to our sinful practice." Calling upon the church to return to its roots, he called upon the Pittsburgh region to "teach our children that they are Christians, educate them as Christians, and treat them as Christians," in the confidence that God would in fact give them the grace promised in their baptism.

The revised Book of Discipline was never adopted—in part due to the division of the church in 1861. But subsequent discussions made it clear that Thornwell's chief supporters resided in the South. The southern church generally had a lower view of the status of baptized children, which may well be connected to southern appreciation for revivals. While many northern Presbyterians recovered a more covenantal emphasis on Christian nurture, southerners increasingly emphasized conversion as the central moment of Christian identity. Not surprisingly, the southern Presbyterian Canons of Discipline adopted Thornwell's distinctive view, while the northern Presbyterian Book of Discipline maintained the traditional Presbyterian view.

Contemporary Appendix

It is, perhaps, of some interest to point out that the PCA has abandoned Thornwell's position. They affirm that "All baptized persons, being members of the Church are subject to its discipline and entitled to the benefits thereof" (PCA BCO, 27-2). They go on to make it clear that adult non-communicants should not be excommunicated for their non-profession: "Adult non-communing members, who receive with meekness and appreciation the oversight and instruction of the Church, are entitled to special attention. Their rights and privileges under the covenant should be frequently and fully explained, and they should be warned of the sin and danger of neglecting their covenant obligations" (PCA BCO, 28-4).

Likewise, the PCA follows the historic Presbyterian practice of receiving members through the session's action, and does not require public profession, except in the case of adult converts: "Communing members are those who have made a profession of faith in Christ, have been baptized, and have been admitted by the Session to the Lord's Table" (PCA BCO 6-2). With respect to children professing faith, "It is recommended, as edifying and proper, that baptized persons, when admitted by the Session to the Lord's Supper, make a public profession of their faith in the presence of the congregation. But in all cases, there should be a clear recognition of their previous relation to the church as baptized members" (PCA BCO 57-4).

As far as other historic Presbyterian churches, the RPCNA permits public profession (RPCNA Directory 1.7), but requires only the session's interview, while the ARP goes so far as to say that beyond the session's private interview, "the session shall not impose additional conditions for membership" (ARP FG V.C.1). Both churches require the membership vows to be taken before the session.

The author is an OPC minister serving as pastor of Michiana Covenant PCA in Granger, Indiana. Reprinted from Ordained Servant, November 2005.

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