The American Congregational tradition has taken on different meanings over time, but it has always rested on one fundamental principle, that God's voice is most clearly heard when ordinary individual Christians join together under mutual covenant.
Congregationalism originated in sixteenth-century England, within the Calvinist wing of the Protestant Reformation. The commitment of these Puritan believers to simple worship in local "gathered" assemblies put them both politically and theologically at odds with England's hierarchical, state-sponsored Anglican Church, and, in the face of persecution, led to their departure to North America in the early seventeenth century.
Leaving was complicated. The Pilgrims who first arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 were a small group of radical Separatists who had fled England for the Netherlands in 1608. Their settlement was small, economically beleaguered, and did not prosper in the long term. A much larger group of Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s and 1640s. Like their predecessors in Plymouth, they had also insisted on local church government, unadorned worship, and covenants between "visible saints". But they strongly resisted the logic of separation from the Anglican Church, believing that they could purify it from within. Under Archbishop William Laud, however, prospects for change grew dim and, also in the face of growing economic duress, thousands of nonseparating Puritans departed to North America. Despite the change of geographic scene, they did not abandon their goal of reforming the English church. New England was to be a "city on a hill", a thoroughly Christian commonwealth and a godly example to all the world.
New England's Puritans were not the dour, witch-hunting kill-joys that have often populated American myth and legend. They were in many ways typical Elizabethan English men and women who enjoyed good ale and good company, and who also held their religious beliefs with deep personal conviction. Early on they flourished in New England, buoyed by the conviction that they were God's chosen people, with a central role in the unfolding of divine history. Indeed, when smallpox epidemics decimated the local Native American population, Puritan settlers accepted the tragedy as an affirmation of God's providential care for their fledgling communities.
Contrary to the popular notion that these settlements were theocratic – that is, ruled by the clergy – the original Puritans set aside separate realms of activity for church and state, though insisting that the two always worked cooperatively. Following the model set by Calvin's Geneva, the Massachusetts General Court enforced uniformity of belief and the obligations of church membership on all the colony's inhabitants, regardless whether or not they personally held to Puritan doctrines. Religious dissent was, in effect, illegal. The other popular conception, that Puritan New England was an early experiment in democracy, is not strictly true either. Though all church members were automatically voting members of their congregations and in the larger commonwealth, the privilege did not extend to women or to religious dissenters, who were still required to pay taxes for church support. Put simply, New England Puritans were not interested in providing religious liberty for all; their primary goal was to establish and maintain close-knit covenanted communities of believers.
Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Puritan leaders also clarified the meaning of congregational government. The original immigrants had been careful to distinguish themselves from other English Protestants who followed a more presbyterian form of church government – that is, who believed that independent congregations needed some form of institutional oversight by groups of ruling elders, or presbyteries. Once in North America, however, congregationalists, especially in newer settlements like Connecticut, began to discover the need for more institutional structure. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was a major step in this direction, affirming the Westminster Confession as the standard of belief for all New England churches, clarifying leadership roles in individual churches, and establishing a rationale for meetings of synods, or representatives from each local church body. Over time, churches in Connecticut tended to be less leery of cooperative forms than their coreligionists in Massachusetts; Connecticut's Saybrook Platform of 1708 set up governing bodies, referred to as consociations and associations, with the power to make legally binding decisions for all of the individual churches within their geographic oversight.
By the mid-eighteenth century, questions of church government were increasingly overshadowed by much knottier issues of piety and zeal. In order to succeed, the congregational way required high levels of personal commitment and in most of the original Puritan churches, potential members had had to testify to a religious conversion experience in order to join. Already in 1662, however, Puritan leaders had formulated a "Half-Way Covenant", allowing parents who had not experienced conversion to baptize their children in their local churches. Not surprisingly perhaps, this innovation caused as many problems as it solved.
The transatlantic religious revival known as the Great Awakening was both bane and blessing in New England. During the 1740s, under the fiery preaching of itinerating evangelists like George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and James Davenport, thousands of laypeople experienced dramatic conversions – and became increasingly critical of the spiritual laxity of the established Congregational clergy. All across New England Congregational churches split into factions, the New Lights supporting the revival and the Old Lights wary of its emotional excesses. Yet revival enthusiasm also generated a variety of intellectually sophisticated responses, particularly the penetratingly analytical yet warmly pastoral writings of Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards. Pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts, during the height of the Great Awakening, Edwards' defense of "religious affections" is a classic melding of "head" and "heart" in American Protestant thought.
American independence presented Congregationalists with obstacles as well as opportunities. By the late 1700s, the New England clergy, sometimes referred to as the Standing Order, had become thoroughly used to the privileges of social leadership and tax-supported church budgets. Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state, a process not complete until Massachusetts changed its laws in 1833, meant that all churches would stand on equal footing and compete for financial support through the voluntary gifts of their membership.
Churches with the smallest investments in money and property – at that time primarily Methodists and Baptists – found the transition easiest to negotiate, and they expanded rapidly into the western frontier. Congregationalists, already two centuries old and loosely organized, proceeded more slowly. In 1801 they signed a Plan of Union with the Presbyterian church, which was designed to pool the resources of both denominations as they moved westward. In the early nineteenth century Congregationalists also overcame some of their organizational reluctance and sponsored an impressive array of voluntary societies, including some of the earliest on behalf of foreign missions. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810), the American Home Missionary Society (1826), the American Education Society, and other similar outreach groups were open to participation by all evangelical Protestants, but spearheaded primarily by Congregationalists. The American Missionary Association, formed in 1846, joined the denomination's antislavery zeal with its commitments to education and evangelism, and in the post-Civil War years established many schools across the South for newly-freed slaves.
But for all these successes, Congregationalists also endured disunity. The nineteenth century opened with a series of bruising theological controversies over the divinity of Christ that created a split between Trinitarian and Unitarian churches, and eventuated in the formation of the Unitarian Association in 1825. The Dedham Decision of 1820, a court case which awarded ownership of a Congregational church to the Unitarian-leaning members of the local parish, dealt a further blow to the established Standing Order. But by then, most Congregational churches were far from comfortable with orthodox Calvinist theology; though a strong minority still affirmed the conservative stance of the Burial Hill Declaration (1865), an increasing number were influenced by new strains of liberal theological thought.
Many of the nineteenth century's most innovative and influential theologians were Congregationalists. During the antebellum period, the heirs of Jonathan Edwards, led by New Divinity theologians Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy, Nathaniel Emmons, and Nathaniel William Taylor worked through labyrinthine questions of human freedom and divine sovereignty. In mid-century New Haven pastor Horace Bushnell laid the groundwork for the development of liberal thought, emphasizing the poetic, intuitive nature of religious truth, and the immanence of God in human experience. Bushnell's insistence that God lived within the most minute human interactions powered Protestant investment in Sunday schools and devotional literature for the home; it also legitimated broader concerns for justice in the Social Gospel movement. During the late-nineteenth century, many Congregationalists, most notably pastor and writer Washington Gladden, led national efforts to establish the "kingdom of God on earth" by campaigning for the rights of labor unions, and aid to the urban poor. Other Congregational theologians, led by the faculty of Andover Seminary in Massachusetts, followed Bushnell along more controversial paths. Their so-called New Theology rejected the formal categories of Calvinist thought, emphasizing instead a more optimistic, ethical creed centering on Christ's role as a moral exemplar, affirming human efforts to bring about a just and peaceful social order. By the early twentieth century, however, these views were no longer those of the radical view, as liberal theology dominated the curriculum of most Congregational seminaries, and spread rapidly into church pulpits across the country.
Early-twentieth century Congregationalists both merged and divided. With the formation of the National Council of Congregational Churches in 1871 previously independent churches finally came together under a permanent denominational structure. Almost immediately, however, Congregational leaders began to look for ways to overcome institutional barriers that separated Christian believers. That same year the National Council issued a "Declaration on the Unity of the Church", decrying the divided state of American Protestantism and calling for new ecumenical conversations among church leaders. These finally found fruit in the 1931 merger of Congregational churches with the Christian Connection, a group formed in the early nineteenth century by believers who, following the first century pattern, rejected all denominational labels. In 1957 the General Council of Congregational and Christian Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a denomination created by another ecumenical venture, to form the United Church of Christ.
Not all Congregationalists followed this route, however. The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC), formed in 1948, brought together evangelical churches who had opted against joining the United Church of Christ because of theological disagreements. The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC) provided a home for congregations and individuals who opposed the 1957 merger for polity reasons. Thus the NACCC created a "referendum council", through which individual churches reserved the right to modify any act by a national body.
In many ways, historical Congregationalism stands at the heart of the American Protestant tradition. The creative tension between individual experience and social witness has been deeply characteristic of the grassroots piety that has undergirded religion in the United States. Congregational wariness toward institutional structures has also been, for good or ill, a prevailing feature of American church life, though it has also allowed room for theological innovation and creative responses to social evils. In American culture, Congregationalists have been among the first to articulate a working relationship between church and state, to promote an educated, engaged citizenship, and Christian mission – in all of the forms this might take – to the wider world.