The Congregational Christian Tradition



The Congregational churches trace their origins to sixteenth-century England, where they were one part of a large and diverse effort to reform the Church of England. After King Henry VIII parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church over his marriage problems, the Anglican Church, as it was also called, kept the forms of Catholicism — the celebration of the Mass, ceremonial "vestments" for the clergy, and the hierarchy of archbishops and bishops — but under the authority of the English king rather than the Pope.

What began as a political change, however, ended up forever changing the landscape of religion in Great Britain and the United States.

The dissenters opposing Church of England were known as "Puritans," at the time a derogatory reference to their uncompromising zeal for simplicity in worship and church organization. They preferred to call themselves "the Reformed," people following the teaching and practice of the Protestant Reformer John Calvin.

The first Congregationalists were Independents, Puritans who believed each church should be a gathering of believers joined together under a covenant agreement, and with the power to choose their own minister. Beyond that, they disagreed about the likelihood of reforming the Church of England and the need for believers to be separated from its corrupting influences.


Pilgrims and Puritans

Though we often use these two names interchangeably, the two were distinct groups both in England and in North America. The Pilgrims who first arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 were a small group of Separatist Independents who had fled England in order to establish a "pure" church in the New World, free from Anglican control.

Those who stayed in England resisted the Pilgrims' call for separation, hoping they could change the Anglican Church from within. Under Archbishop William Laud, prospects for change grew dim, and in the 1630s and 1640s thousands of Puritans left England and settled in Massachusetts Bay. Despite the change of scene, they did not abandon their goal of reforming the English church. New England was to be a "city on a hill," a perfect Christian society and an example to the world.


Understanding Puritan New England

New England's Puritans were not the dour, witch-hunting kill-joys of 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 intensity. Early on they flourished in New England, buoyed by the conviction that they were chosen by God to play a central role in the unfolding of human history. This confidence did not endear them to their critics, then or now. When smallpox epidemics decimated the local Native American population, Puritan settlers accepted the tragedy as a sign that God was watching out for them alone.

Churches and church leaders played an important role in shaping New England society, but they had no direct political power. In Puritan theology, church and state had separate roles and responsibilities; magistrates and ministers worked together to make sure that godly standards prevailed. This meant that everyone in the Massachusetts Bay colony, whether a Puritan or not, had to attend church and obey the laws of the Commonwealth.

Today, this requirement looks like intolerance of the worst kind — though they were religious dissenters in England, the New England Puritans refused to allow anyone else the same freedom. But the truth is that no one anywhere in Europe believed that religion should be a personal choice: the church was an arm of the government, and rulers always decided how their people would worship. The Puritan Commonwealth, the city on a hill, was also something more than a New World colony. It was a "holy experiment", a place where a dedicated band of believers would show the world what Jesus Christ really intended.


Becoming Congregationalists

In New England Independents became Congregationalists. This means that though individual churches were "sufficient," meaning that they ran their affairs without intrusion from outside, they were also part of a network of mutual obligation and "watch care." Local churches regularly consulted each other on difficult questions about calling ministers or disciplining members — there was no such thing as a Congregational handbook that everyone could follow.

In 1648 the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony met together to draw up the Cambridge Platform, a document that laid out standards for ordaining ministers, accepting new church members, and cooperation between local churches. This would be the closest Congregationalists would come to a constitution, and the last time they would all meet together for the next two centuries. Congregationalism in Connecticut took a slightly different tack: the Saybrook Platform of 1708 allowed for ministers to meet together in consociations and associations, and gave them power to make binding decisions over individual churches.


The Puritan Heritage

In all Congregational churches members held equal power, all of them responsible to each other under the covenant that formed the basis of their life together. In fact, ministers first became church members before he could be chosen and ordained by the church. Even then the minister's power was subject to the will of the congregation — he led by their consent.

Were Congregational churches democratic? The connection with later events in New England, especially the American Revolution, does suggest that something important was happening in the Puritan Commonwealth. But of course, not everyone had the right to vote — women had no official voice in church matters and dissenting Baptists and Quakers, when they were not being forcibly banished, still had to pay taxes for church support. But in other very important ways, Congregational New England was unique in the seventeenth-century world. Ordinary citizens had unprecedented power to make decisions about land and property, and to hold their leaders in check.


The Great Revival

The Congregational Way required a great deal of mutual trust and personal commitment, and was not always easy to sustain. In many of the original Puritan churches, potential members had to testify to a religious conversion experience in order to join, and pass muster before the minister, elders, and the rest of the congregation. Within a generation of the first settlements, Puritan leaders had to re-formulate the rules for church membership to avoid serious decline. The "Half-Way Covenant" of 1662 allowed non-members to have their children baptized, a move that raised as many problems as it solved. To many it suggested that New England's glory was past.

The transatlantic religious revival known as the Great Awakening reinvigorated spiritual zeal, but came with a cost. During the 1740s, under the fiery preaching of traveling evangelists like George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and James Davenport, thousands of laypeople experienced dramatic conversions — and then became increasingly critical of their ministers.

All across New England Congregational churches split into factions, the New Lights supporting the revival and the Old Lights wary of its emotional excesses. While some New Lights eventually returned to the fold, many others left to become Baptists. The Old Lights, Congregationalists who wanted a religion answerable to the Age of Reason, were the forerunners of Unitarianism. Intractable differences over Calvinist theology led to separation and the formation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825.

Revival enthusiasm also generated a variety of intellectually sophisticated responses to the problem of religious "enthusiasm" in an age of scientific learning, most notably in the works of Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards. As a pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts, during the height of the Awakening, Edwards' defense of "religious affections" is a classic melding of "head" and "heart" in American Protestant thought.


Denominational Growth and Westward Expansion

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 their social privileges, especially tax support from their local communities. Outlawed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, religious establishment lingered on in Massachusetts until 1833.

Suddenly, the Congregational churches faced a new world, one in which they would have to support themselves through the voluntary gifts of members. While they were still weathering the effects of losing some of their most prominent churches to Unitarianism, they would also face competition from other "upstart" denominations, the Methodists and Baptists.

Despite these obstacles, Congregationalists soon took the lead in "voluntary religion," as it was called. In 1801 Congregationalists signed a Plan of Union with the Presbyterian church, an effort to pool the resources as both denominations moved westward. A good idea in theory, the sharing did not work well in practice, especially as denominational competition heated up and Presbyterians fell into controversy and a brief schism.

They also sponsored an impressive array of voluntary organizations, 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 began as cooperative efforts with other Protestant churches, but spearheaded primarily by Congregationalists.

Congregationalists like the Beecher family and schools like Ohio's Oberlin and Lane Seminaries also led the way in social reform, especially women's rights and abolitionism. 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 elementary schools, colleges, and theological seminaries across the South for newly-freed slaves.


A Progressive Legacy

Many of the nineteenth century's most innovative and influential thinkers were Congregationalists. Before the Civil War a generation of theologians — Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy, Nathaniel Emmons, and Nathaniel William Taylor — reworked Calvinism to mesh with the democratic values of American culture. In the mid-century Hartford pastor Horace Bushnell pioneered a host of new ideas that would change the direction of American theology. In place of a separate, transcendent God, Bushnell emphasized immanence, God's involvement at every level of human society, even the most intimate interactions between parents and children.

During the late-nineteenth century, many Congregationalists, most notably pastor and writer Washington Gladden, were leaders in the Social Gospel movement. This was an effort to change all of society for the better — to establish the "kingdom of God on earth" — by campaigning for workers' rights, education and health care for the poor, and clean and accessible cities.

Other Congregational theologians like Theodore Munger and Lyman Abbott pioneered the New Theology, a more optimistic and socially involved approach to Christianity. By the early twentieth century, these views were no longer those of the radical few but dominating the curriculum of most Congregational seminaries, and preached from church pulpits across the country.


Becoming a Denomination

When the Plan of Union with the Presbyterians fell apart, Congregationalists began to plan more aggressively for their own future. They met together in Albany, the first national gathering since the Cambridge Synod of 1648, and promised to raise financial support for western churches. Delayed by the Civil War, Congregational leaders met again in Boston in 1865, where they began to hammer out standards of church procedures (polity) and adopted a statement of faith, known as the Burial Hill Declaration.

Denominational organization came in 1871 with the formation of the National Council of Congregational Churches. With a constitution barely a page long, the National Council had power only to convene a national meeting every two (later three) year — and no authority over local churches.


Mergers and Divisions

In the early-twentieth century Congregationalists were leaders in the ecumenical movement, a world-wide effort to build unity and reverse the denominational fragmentation of the Protestant churches. 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 shared their dislike of organizational "machinery," rejecting the use of creeds and denominational labels. At this point the National Association became the General Association of Congregational Christian Churches.

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 churches sharing a common commitment to evangelical theology. 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, the Congregational Christian churches are at the heart of the American Protestant tradition. Their numbers declined over the course of the last two centuries, but their influence on American thought and social conscience are still strong. As pioneers in education, social justice, and Christian unity, they have indelibly shaped the world we have inherited.