Congregationalism

First Church of Christ, Congregational in East Haddam is a Congregational Church.

Congregationalism is a form of church government or “polity.”  “Episcopal” church government is rule by bishops, “Presbyterian” church government is rule by elders, and “Congregational” church government is rule by the congregation.  Episcopal government usually includes a hierarchy over the local church, and Presbyterian government sometimes does as well.  Congregational polity avoids such hierarchy, maintaining that the local church is answerable directly to God, not some man or another organization. Congregational polity is found in many Baptist and non-denominational churches.

In addition to those churches which practice a congregational form of government, there are also those which call themselves a “Congregational Church.”  Congregational Churches are Protestant Christian churches practicing Congregationalist church governance, in which each congregation independently and autonomously runs its own affairs.  In the United States, most of these are now affiliated with United Church of Christ.  Other associations are the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.  These groups share a common history which is traced to the New England Puritans.

Many Congregational Churches claim their descent from a family of Protestant denominations formed on a theory of union published by the theologian Robert Browne in 1592.  These arose from the Nonconformist religious movement during the Puritan reformation of the Church of England.  In Great Britain, the early Congregationalists were called Separatists or Independents to distinguish them from the similarly Calvinistic Presbyterians.  Some Congregationalists in Britain still call themselves Independent.

Congregationalists settled and long dominated New England, especially Massachusetts and Connecticut.  These settlers had John Cotton as their most influential leader, beginning in 1633.  Cotton’s writings persuaded the Calvinist theologian John Owen to separate from the Presbyterian church.  He became very influential in the development of Congregationalist theology and ideas of church government.  Jonathan Edwards was also a Congregationalist.

In 1648, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans drew up the Cambridge Platform as a means of protecting their assemblies from interference by unfriendly authorities in England and to formulate a common church polity based on Scripture.  While formally still a part of the Church of England, these Puritans were unwilling to conform to the corruptions in the forms of worship and government that they saw in the church.  Stepping outside the authority of the mother church, the Platform declared that “a company of professed believers ecclesiastically confederate” is a church, with or without officers.  This clearly separated them from all forms of hierarchical church government.

Centralizing forces made the Congregational Church even more powerful and more conservative.  The Saybrook Platform was a new constitution for the Congregational Church in Connecticut in 1708.  Religious and civic leaders in Connecticut around 1700 were distressed by the colony-wide decline in personal religious piety and in church discipline.  The colonial legislature sponsored a meeting in Saybrook.  It drafted articles which rejected extreme localism or Congregationalism that had been inherited from England, and replaced it with a system similar to what the Presbyterians had.  The Congregational church was now to be led by local ministerial associations and consociations composed of ministers and lay leaders from a specific geographical area.  Instead of the congregation from each local church selecting its minister, the associations now had the responsibility to examine candidates for the ministry, and to oversee a behavior of the ministers.  The consociations (where laymen were powerless) could impose discipline on specific churches and judge disputes that arose.  The result was a centralization of power that bothered many local church activists.  However the official associations responded by disfellowshipping churches that refused to comply.  The system survived to the mid-nineteenth century, well after Congregationalism was officially disestablished in the State of Connecticut.  The Platform marked a conservative counter-revolution against a non-conformist tide which had begun with the Halfway Covenant and would later culminate in the Great Awakening in the 1750s.  Similar proposals for more centralized clerical control of local churches were defeated in Massachusetts.

The model of Congregational Churches was carried by migrating settlers from New England into New York State and then into the “Old North West,” the North-West Territory, now the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin (and a small portion of Minnesota).  With their insistence on independent local bodies, they became important in many social reform movements, including abolitionism, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

The Congregational Churches eventually merged with the Christian Churches, which had separated from the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  This new group maintained the congregational form of government, and with the strong emphasis on the autonomy of the local church, tolerance of doctrinal variations was essential.

While the Congregational Christian Churches were growing, two other groups were formed that would eventually become part of United Church of Christ.  German settlers in Pennsylvania formed the Reformed Church in 1725, and many years later, German settlers in Missouri formed the Evangelical Church in 1841.  These bodies merged in 1934 to become the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

In 1957, the Evangelical Reformed Church merged with the Congregational Christian Churches to become United Church of Christ (UCC).  According to their web page, the UCC is an “extremely pluralistic and diverse denomination.”  Because of their firm adherence to the autonomy of the local church, the denomination cannot impose doctrine onto individual churches.  Likewise, because of the belief in freedom of individual conscience, the local church does not impose doctrine on its members.  While they celebrate the historic creeds and confessions of the church, they do not recognize them as authoritative tests of orthodoxy, but as “testimonies of faith.”  Since “faith can be expressed in many different ways,” the UCC has no formula that is a test of faith.  Members of each congregation covenant with one another and with God in “covenantal relationships rather than legal agreements.”  The result of this doctrine is a wide variance of beliefs and practices, with no consistency or standard for churches or people.

Some of the first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst, all were founded by the Congregationalists, as were later Carleton, Grinnell, Oberlin, Beloit, and Pomona.

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