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5. Congregationalists



Congregationalists are members of a group of churches that arose in England in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Originally they were frequently called Independents, as they still are in Welsh-speaking communities. The main centres of Congregationalism traditionally were in Britain and the United States, but in the 20th century Congregationalists have joined with others to form united churches in these and several other countries.

Congregationalism has occupied a position among the churches somewhere between Presbyterianism and the more radical Protestants, such as non-Fundamentalist Baptists and Quakers. Its distinctive emphasis has been on the right and responsibility of each properly organized congregation to make its own decisions about its own affairs, without having to submit them to the judgment of any higher human authority. Although this was not always true in the early days in America, Congregationalists have generally been distrustful of state establishment of religion and have been workers for civil and religious liberty. Their emphasis on the rights of the particular congregation and on freedom of conscience arose historically from their strong Protestant convictions concerning the sovereignty of God and the priesthood of all believers. This attitude has given them an openness of outlook that has led many of them to theological and social liberalism and to active participation in the ecumenical movement.


i) England.

The "Congregational way" came into prominence in English life during the 17th-century Civil War, but its origins lie in 16th-century Separatism. Robert Browne is sometimes taken as its founder, but he was an erratic character who changed his views more than once. Congregational ideas were in the air, finding expression independently of him. The Separatists (those advocating separation from rather than reform of the Church of England) were severely persecuted under Elizabeth I; three of them--John Greenwood, Henry Barrow, and John Penry--were the first Congregational martyrs. Some of the Separatists settled in Holland to escape persecution, and it was from among these that the Mayflower Separatists later set sail for the New World (see below, United States ).

At the time of the Long Parliament, beginning in 1641, many exiles returned to England, and the Independents, as they were now called, became increasingly active. They were particularly influential in the army, having Oliver Cromwell himself associated with them. They began to move away from the Presbyterians, with whom they had initially cooperated, and to draw closer to the Baptists and the Fifth Monarchy Men (a Puritan millennialist sect). They reached the peak of their influence during the Commonwealth in the 1650s, and their leaders, Hugh Peter, John Owen, and Thomas Goodwin, held positions of eminence. With the death of Cromwell (1658) they lacked the conviction and power of initiative to hold the country together, and in the confused period before the recall of King Charles II in 1660 their political influence collapsed.

The advent of Charles II was a disaster for Congregationalists, and the Act of Uniformity of 1662 was the first of a series of determined efforts to root them out from English life. "Black Bartholomew," St. Bartholomew's Day, Aug. 24, 1662, when some 2,000 ministers of various Protestant groups who rejected the authority of the Church of England were ejected from their livings, has always been regarded as a great turning point in the history of English Dissent. All Nonconformists were subjected to a persecution that, although severe, was not so intense as to imperil their existence. In this time John Owen and others produced some of the classical statements of Congregational belief; John Milton produced his greatest poems; and John Bunyan, although his closest affinities were with the Baptists, imprinted some of the characteristic religious attitudes of the Dissenters indelibly on the English consciousness.

The accession of William and Mary in 1688 and the consequent Toleration Act of 1689 meant that the survival of the Congregationalists was assured, although still under civil disabilities. Their fears were renewed by the advent of Queen Anne (1702). The Occasional Conformity Act (1711) forbade Dissenters from qualifying for public office by occasionally taking communion at the Anglican parish church, and the Schism Act (1714) was directed against their schools. The death of Queen Anne in 1714, before the Schism Act could be fully implemented, was considered providential by the Dissenters. They supported the new regime and the Whig ascendancy and for the next 50 years enjoyed a modest prosperity. Most of them belonged to the economically independent sections of society and lived in London and the older provincial towns. They were especially active in education. After 1662 Dissenters were debarred from the universities, and many ejected ministers started small schools and colleges called academies, which gradually became more numerous and influential. Their curricula, influenced by the educational theories of Francis Bacon and John Amos Comenius, were more relevant than those of the comatose universities, and they were the precursors of many later educational developments. (see also Index: United Kingdom)

Religious zeal was declining as the 17th century waned, and rationalism became more influential. Deism and Arianism (a heresy denying the divinity of Christ) were widespread, the latter especially among the Presbyterians, some of whom gradually became Unitarian. That Congregationalism did not go the same way was in no small measure due to the influence of Philip Doddridge, minister of Northampton, who was a theologian, pastor, social reformer, educationist, and author of the devotional classic The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). (see also Index: Unitarianism)

The quality of Congregationalism in the early 18th century has sometimes been disparaged, but its limitations were those of a small community in the aftermath of a period of great intensity of experience. A change came with the rise of Methodism and the Evangelical Revival (c. 1750-1815), which had a profound, if unobtrusive, influence on Congregationalism. Many ministers were deeply affected by the revival, and many people who were reached by the Methodist preaching found their way into the already existing Congregational churches. Thus the great evangelist George Whitefield had close relations with Congregationalism, and many of the churches founded by Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon, a leading figure in the revival, made and long retained a connection with Congregationalism. By 1815 the character of Congregationalism had been significantly changed in an Evangelical direction, especially in the developing industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The outstanding result of the Evangelical Revival in Congregationalism was the founding of the London Missionary Society (1795). Its purpose was not so much the spreading of Congregationalism overseas as the proclaiming of "the glorious gospel of the blessed God," leaving the churches it founded to find their own form. Its main support was always Congregational, and it has now been incorporated into the Council for World Mission of the United Reformed Church. Through its agency, churches have been established in Africa, Madagascar, India, China, Papua New Guinea, and on islands in the South Seas. Many of these are now united in wider bodies, of which the most notable is the Church of South India.

In the first half of the 19th century Congregationalism was involved in a period of expansion and consolidation. Increased numbers brought many poorer people into the churches, and a new political and social radicalism began to emerge. Voluntarism, which opposed the state support of denominational education, and the Liberation Society, which advocated disestablishment, found widespread support. The Congregational Union of England and Wales, linking the churches in a national organization, was founded in 1832 and the Colonial (later the Commonwealth) Missionary Society, for promoting Congregationalism in the English-speaking colonies, in 1836.

Congregational churches shared fully in the ecclesiastical prosperity of the Victorian era. Many new buildings were erected, often in ambitious Gothic style, and the cult of the popular preacher developed. Able ministers, among whom R.W. Dale of Birmingham was outstanding, deeply influenced the public life of Victorian cities. The links of the churches with the Liberal Party were greatly strengthened, and the civic disabilities of Dissenters were steadily removed. Thriving churches in new suburbs developed into hives of social, philanthropic, and educational activity. The picture of the philistine (unimaginative) Dissenters drawn by the poet and critic Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy(1869) contained a measure of truth, but the work's lack of historical perspective led it to underestimate the zeal for self-improvement and the desire for a richer life that existed in Victorian Congregationalism.

The Liberal victory of 1906 represented the peak of the social and political influence of Congregationalism. After that, Congregational churches shared in the institutional decline of most British churches, but they continued to show theological and cultural vitality. In October 1972 the majority of English Congregationalists and Presbyterians united to form the new United Reformed Church, which was joined in 1981 by the Churches of Christ, the small British counterpart of the American Disciples of Christ.

ii) Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.

Welsh-speaking Congregational churches did not join the United Reformed Church but have their separate organization in the Union of Welsh Independents. These churches grew up originally in the countryside but transplanted themselves with remarkable success to the developing industrial valleys in the 19th century. The churches have been strong centres of distinctively Welsh culture, and their ministers have often been national leaders. Their influence diminished in the 20th century as population moved away from old centres of strength, but Welsh Congregationalists maintain their tradition of preaching, poetry, and hymnody.

Congregationalism in Scotland has been less prominent, and in Ireland it has struck only a very small root. In Scotland it arose in the 19th century out of dissatisfaction with the lack of missionary zeal of the Church of Scotland and soon united with a similar group called the Evangelical Union. Numerically small, it has made a distinctively liberal contribution to Scottish life and has given many notable sons to the church-at-large, among them the missionaries David Livingstone and Robert Moffat and the writer George Macdonald, as well as Peter Taylor Forsyth.

iii) United States.

It was in the United States that Congregationalism achieved its greatest public influence and numerical strength, and, through the New England experiment, in setting up communities based on Congregational-type religious principles, it was a major factor in determining the character of the nation. The New England settlement had two roots, in the Separatism of Plymouth Colony and in the Puritanism of Massachusetts Bay. The first Separatists came on the Mayflower in 1620 from the exiled church at Leiden, Holland. The Puritans wished to reform the Church of England rather than to leave it, and they left England in order to build a "godly commonwealth" that would be an example to old England of what a new England, truly reformed according to the Word of God, might be. They were closer in spirit to the English Presbyterians than to the Separatists, but there was enough affinity between the two groups to enable them to live together in comparative harmony and to reject more radical leaders such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. In 1648 the two groups united to produce the Cambridge Platform, a declaration of faith that accepted the theological position of the Westminster Confession but maintained a Congregational polity. (The English Congregationalists produced a similar statement, the Savoy Declaration, in 1658.)

The original experiment demanded a radical commitment of an intellectual and spiritual intensity that made the New England colony unique in history. As the community became established and a second generation grew up, it became difficult to maintain the high standard, and the rigorous conditions for church membership had to be relaxed. This need found expression in the famous Half-Way Covenant, which said that those who had been baptized but could not enter into full church membership on the basis of the kind of religious experience considered appropriate were accepted as church members but not admitted to communion or allowed to have voting rights.

The community was keenly interested in education from the outset, and one of its earliest acts was to start a college to maintain the succession of learned ministers. Thus was founded Harvard College (1636), the first of a long line of colleges begun under Congregational auspices in America.

The gradual loss of religious fervour caused great distress and self-questioning to the Congregational leaders, but a quickening of new life came with the 18th-century Great Awakening, the widespread revival movement that started in 1734 under the influence of Jonathan Edwards. The Awakening, however, threw into relief the differences emerging between two wings in Congregationalism. On the one side were those who maintained the Calvinist tradition, creatively restated by Edwards and his followers, with a greater emphasis on the affective elements in religion. On the other was a rapidly growing Unitarianism, parallel to a similar movement in England. By the early 19th century many of the oldest Congregational churches had become Unitarian, including 12 of the 14 in Boston. Unitarianism was not so prevalent in Connecticut, where Congregationalism had quickly taken root and remained the established church until well into the 19th century.

Although the loss to Unitarianism was serious, Congregationalism remained vigorous in the 19th century and was active in the westward expansion of the nation. The Presbyterians were almost nonexistent in New England but strong in the Middle Atlantic states, where Congregationalism had little root. The two bodies adopted a Plan of Union in 1801 for joint missionary activity in the developing territories. One of the reasons for the ultimate breakdown of this arrangement after half a century was the growing liberalism of Congregationalism. The characteristic theologian of this period was Horace Bushnell, who challenged the traditional substitutionary view of the Atonement (that Christ's suffering and death atoned for man's sins), and whose well-known book, Christian Nurture (1847), questioned the necessity of the classical conversion experience. Such influential preachers as Henry Ward Beecher and Washington Gladden popularized similar ideas. The so-called Kansas City Creed of 1913 summed up the liberalism of this period, which represented a radical break with the Calvinist past. (see also Index: Presbyterian churches)

American Congregationalists have engaged in widespread missionary activity, particularly in the Middle East and in China before the Communist Revolution. A national Congregational organization was formed in 1871, and powerful Boards for Home Missions and Education were established, through which Northern Congregationalists did a great deal for black education in the South, where there were hardly any indigenous Congregational churches.

Modern American Congregationalism has shown itself singularly ready to unite with other churches. Union with a relatively small body called the Christian Church, which was concentrated in the upper South, was achieved between the world wars, and a more notable union was achieved with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1961. This was a strong community of German Lutheran and Reformed background, which claimed the eminent theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich among its ministers. The new church body is known as the United Church of Christ. A minority of Congregational churches refused to join the union, and these remain separate.

Congregationalism has not succeeded in becoming a popular worldwide form of church life, although it has been represented in most English-speaking countries. Congregationalists were prominent in the formation of the Church of South India in 1947. They have also become part of the United Church of Canada and of the Uniting Church in Australia. Through the International Congregational Council, united with the Reformed Alliance since 1970, they have had fraternal ties with churches of similar outlook in Europe, notably the Remonstrant Brotherhood of Holland and the Swedish Mission Covenant Church.


Throughout their history Congregationalists have shared the faith and general outlook of evangelical Protestantism in the English-speaking countries, but normally in a more liberalized way than would be customary among their nearest neighbours, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Baptists. The English historian Bernard Manning once described their position as decentralized Calvinism, in contrast to the centralized Calvinism of Presbyterians. That description contains much truth about their doctrines and general outlook until well into the 19th century, but it underestimates the Congregational emphasis on the free movement of the Spirit. This provides a link with the Quakers and partly explains the Congregational distrust of giving binding authority to creedal statements. The other part of their distrust is explained by their anxiety to accord supreme authority to Scripture. They have not been slow to produce declarations of faith. In addition to the Savoy Declaration, the Cambridge Platform, and the Kansas City Creed already mentioned, lengthy statements have also been produced both by the United Church of Christ and by the English Congregationalists. No great authority is claimed for any of these, and in recent generations most Congregationalists have regarded the primitive confession, "Jesus is Lord," as a sufficient basis for membership.

Similarly, they have always stressed the importance of freedom. Even in the days of their Cromwellian triumph they were tolerant by the standards of the time, and through the activities of the Protestant Dissenting Deputies, who had the right of direct access to the monarch, they contributed greatly in the 18th century to the establishment of the rights of minorities in England. Both in England and America the long-faced and repressive Puritan of tradition owes as much to the caricatures of political opponents and literary rebels as to actual fact.


i) Practices.

Congregationalism has always attached importance to preaching because the Word of God as declared in Scripture is regarded as constitutive of the church. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are considered to be the only sacraments instituted by Christ. Infants are baptized, normally by sprinkling. The Lord's Supper is normally celebrated once or twice a month and has not always been given a central place, often following a preaching service after a brief interval in which many of the congregation leave. In recent times, the unity of sermon and sacrament as parts of the same service has been much more strongly emphasized, and there has been a tendency to assimilate Congregational and Presbyterian practice to each other. Traditionally public prayer has been extempore, but in the 20th century service books and set forms have been increasingly used. Since the 18th century and the work of the great Congregationalist hymn writer Isaac Watts, hymns have featured prominently in Congregational worship. The English compilation, Congregational Praise (1951), worthily maintained the tradition.

ii) Polity.

The distinctive organizational tenet of Congregationalism has been that of the spiritual autonomy of the particular congregation. The congregation, however, is not thought of as any casual gathering of Christians but as a settled body with a well-defined constitution and proper offices that has tried to order itself in harmony with the New Testament understanding of the nature of the church. The claim is made that if a church in a particular place possesses the Bible, the sacraments, a properly called and appointed minister and deacons, and members who have made a genuine Christian profession, no earthly body can be more fully the church than this. It follows that, as it is responsible to God for its life in that place, so it must have freedom to discern and obey God's will for itself, with no dictation from outside. Although this view carries with it respect for the rights of the individual conscience, it is not spiritual individualism but an attempt to treat the visible and corporate character of the church as concretely as possible.

It has always been recognized that this principle did not involve ecclesiastical isolation. "The communion of the churches with each other" was a frequent 17th-century theme. But the precise way in which churches should be related to the association and councils through which they expressed their communion has often caused uneasy debate. In the 19th century, thinking about this relation was affected by the individualism of the age, while in the more centralized and mobile 20th century, with the widespread movement toward mergers and redeployment, the positive role of councils has been stressed. The authentic Congregational principle would appear to be that, whatever adaptations of organization may be necessary in changing circumstances, responsibility and the freedom to fulfill it must always be as specific and personal as possible.

The idea of the "gathered" church is integral to traditional Congregationalism. It is a recognition that the primary agent in church foundation is not human but God's Spirit. Arising in protest against the Anglican territorial conception of the church, according to which all residents of a particular neighbourhood should be counted as members of the local Anglican church, it insisted that it was the duty and privilege of the believer to discover who else in the vicinity was called by Christ and then to walk together with them in church order, which was thought of not primarily as a matter of organization but of common style of life. Where the state or prelacy tries to impose another principle, "the crown rights of the Redeemer" (Christ) in his church--a great phrase among Congregationalists--are impugned. How far the principle of the gathered church can be honestly applied in churches with large formal memberships is a problem modern Congregationalists have not solved, but great responsibilities remain with particular churches. All members are deemed to have equal rights and are expected to exercise them through membership of a church meeting that is empowered to deal with all matters pertaining to that particular church's life. Church meetings have not always been very vigorous and, especially in the United States, many of their powers have been delegated to officers or committees, but efforts have been made to restore them to their important place.

Ordination to the Congregational ministry has been through the ratification of the call of the individual by acceptance for training by the churches acting together, and then by the call from a particular church to act as its minister. This practice has been retained in most of the new united churches. The churches corporately set standards of training, which, particularly in the United States and Canada, is frequently conducted in interdenominational seminaries or universities.

Until new patterns were established by mergers, nearly all Congregational churches were linked together in association or unions on local, provincial, and national levels. In recent times these have appointed superintendent ministers or moderators, who exercise a general ministry to the churches over a large area; but it would be misleading to think of their role as equivalent to that of diocesan bishops, since they are not regarded as the sources of ecclesiastical order and have no formal authority over independent churches. It is a Congregational principle that the service of the Word and the sacraments, rather than one's place in a system of ecclesiastical administration, confers authority on a minister.

All offices in Congregational churches were open to women before it became widespread practice. The first woman was ordained in 1917. Churches are mainly financed by the contributions of members. There are substantial denominational funds for ensuring minimum stipends to finance missionary work and pensions, but even these depend heavily on contributions from the churches as well as on endowments.



iii) Congregationalism in the modern world.

Congregationalism has flourished most in settled communities of manageable size, in provincial cities, or in the substantial suburbs of larger cities. It has played a prominent part in the civic life of such places, especially in the 19th century, and it has proved itself a rich seedbed for educational and cultural aspirations. It has not itself always enjoyed the fruits of these aspirations because many of the children it has produced have moved on to spheres where the organized churches have found difficulty in keeping pace with them. Many prominent American and English politicians have been Congregationalists, among them Hubert Humphrey and Harold Wilson. John Milton and Robert Browning stand closest to the distinctive Congregationalist outlook among the numerous major artists of Congregationalist connection or upbringing.

Congregationalism has clearly not succeeded in establishing itself as one of the major forms of churchmanship in the modern world. Congregational ideas and practices have, however, had a deep influence on many other churches. Congregationalism has also been a major factor in shaping the institutions and the general culture of the United States and, to a lesser degree, of Britain and the Commonwealth. Its expansion and vitality in England in the 19th century were closely linked with the rise of new middle-class groups, but with the increase of social mobility, the centralization of business organizations, and the decline of the continuity of family style of life from one generation to the next, its churches have suffered heavily in deterioration of numbers and direct social influence. The decline has not been as marked in the United States, where Congregational churches have shared in the general ecclesiastical prosperity, although even there they have not expanded at anything like the rate of most other large groups of churches. Most of the historic Congregational churches are now incorporated in reunited churches belonging to the Reformed family. Whether what is distinctive in Congregationalism can be effectively maintained under the pressure of modern urban mobility in more centrally organized churches is to be determined. (D.T.J.)

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