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Congregationalism

CONGREGATIONALISM

CONGREGATIONALISM. Congregationalist Churches trace their ancestry to the Non-Separating Puritans who originally settled the New England colonies. The first century of their existence was a stormy period in which the New England churches searched for principles of church order that would be adequate to the new American situation. The first systematic exposition of those principles was the Cambridge Platform (1648), which accepted the Calvinist Westminster Confession of Faith as a doctrinal standard and affirmed that the policy of New England was to admit to the sacraments only those "visible saints" who could relate a conversion experience. This system left unanswered the question of whether or not the children of believing nonmembers could be baptized. After considerable controversy, the Halfway Covenant, which allowed for two types of church affiliation—including both those who could and those who could not relate a conversion experience—was adopted by a synod in 1662 to resolve the issue. By the turn of the century, the churches were clearly moving toward a general "established" church pattern.

The Great Awakening (1733–1746) was a period of crisis for the Congregational way. On the one hand, the evangelical wing of the church wished to return to the earlier ideal of a converted church of "visible saints." On the other hand, the liberal wing of the church, which was moving in a more latitudinarian direction, was offended by the emotionalism and lack of clarity of the evangelicals. The more extreme evangelicals withdrew from the state church system to establish their own separate churches, and many Boston-area liberals accelerated their movement toward Unitarianism. Some Congregational churches even disbanded after the Revolutionary War.

In the early nineteenth century, a number of New England Congregationalists moved west and spread their gospel with missionary zeal. Under the Plan of Union (1801) and the Accommodation Plan (1808), Congregationalists and Presbyterians agreed to share the responsibility for the evangelization of the West. Thirteen frontier colleges, including Beloit (1846), Grinnell (1846), and Carleton (1866), trace their roots to the Congregationalists' efforts in the Midwest. In addition, Rev. Horace Bushnell and others cultivated ties with German Evangelical churches, paving the way for a twentieth-century merger of these organizations. The Congregationalist-Presbyterian arrangement gradually disintegrated as Presbyterians became disturbed over the liberal drift of the so-called New England theology, and, by 1837, the two sects had separated.

The early part of the nineteenth century also saw the splitting off of the Unitarian churches, which were located primarily in the area around Boston. But Congregational parishes continued to thrive among the older, more static communities of New England. Along with the Federalist party, many Congregational clergy opposed the War of 1812. A number of prominent Congregationalist women, such as Emma Willard, Catherine Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, took leading roles in promoting public school reform and opposing slavery. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Congregationalism continued its movement in a more liberal direction. The denomination was one of the leading ecclesiastical opponents of slavery in the 1850s; never very popular in the South, Congregationalism did not suffer the institutional division that plagued many other Protestant denominations in the years preceding the Civil War. After the war, Congregationalism was deeply affected by the Social Gospel. Congregationalists working through the American Missionary Association tended to the educational needs of free blacks in the South. In the North, Rev. Josiah Strong, Rev. Washington Gladden, and Jane Addams all brought attention to the problems of industrialization and refocused attention from individual salvation to social and political reform. A national council was formed in 1871 to provide some denominational coordination among Congregationalists, and, in 1913, a liberal confession of faith was adopted at Kansas City.

The twentieth century saw Congregationalism taking a position of leadership in the ecumenical movement. In 1931 Congregationalists merged with the Christian Churches (a group founded by frontier evangelicals in 1794) to become the Congregational Christian Churches. In the 1940s this denomination began negotiations to merge with two churches deeply rooted in the German Diaspora in North America: the Evangelical Synod of North America—strongest in the Midwest, and the Reformed church—German religious separatists that had broken their ties with Europe in the 1790s and had only just united to form their organization in 1934. The union of Yankee and German did not occur without debate and controversy. The Congregational Christians wanted to preserve local control over church operations. On the other hand, the Evangelical and Reformed churches believed that congregations should be made accountable to one another and were less concerned about centralizing authority. After ten drafts for an agreement of union and a federal lawsuit, the Evangelical and Reformed churches were merged with the Congregational Christian Churches at the Uniting General Synod in Cleveland, Ohio, on 25 June 1957, creating the United Church of Christ (UCC).

The UCC was a standard-bearer of liberal Protestantism in the twentieth century. Men and women like the UCC minister Andrew Young, later a U.S. congressman and United Nations ambassador, were active in the struggle for black equality during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In 1972 a UCC church in San Francisco ordained one of the first openly gay men to a Christian ministry. Changing regional demographics and the revitalized evangelical movement reduced the UCC's membership in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1973 the UCC claimed 1,895,016 members; by 2002 the number had dropped to 1,359,105. Like other mainline Protestant denominations, the UCC has embraced growing Hispanic and immigrant communities in the hopes of growing its membership.

The UCC is the largest church in the Congregational family. However, not all Congregational churches were content with the new body. In 2002 the somewhat liberal Congregational Christian Churches (continuing Congregational) had 70,000 members, down from 110,000 in 1973. By contrast, the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, which opposed abortion rights and believed homosexuality to be a sin, had grown from 19,000 members in 1973 to 40,000 members in 2002. The Unitarian Universalist Association should be considered a member of the Congregational family. The Unitarians withdrew from orthodox Congregationalism in the early nineteenth century under the leadership of such eminent pastors as William Ellery Channing. Initially, the group stressed the unity of God, the revelation by Christ but not His divinity, a nonsubstitutionary doctrine of the atonement, and each human's ethical duties to his or her neighbor. The rise of transcendentalism in the 1830s further liberalized the movement, and the Unitarians have been moving progressively away from distinctively Christian affirmations since that time. Unitarians now stress an intellectual humanism rooted in the values of all religions.

Although John Murray gathered the first Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1779, the greatest influence on American Universalism was Hosea Ballou, who stated the classical Universalist position in his Treatise on Atonement (1805). According to Ballou, Christ's death is to be regarded as effecting salvation for all men. Ballou also moved Universalism in a more Unitarian direction; in 1803, the denomination accepted a statement of faith in harmony with his views. In 1961 the Unitarians and the Universalists formally merged in the Unitarian Universalist Association, which in 2002 had approximately 156,000 members.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atkins, Gaius, G., and Frederick Louis Fagley, History of American Congregationalism. Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1942.

Chrystal, William G. A Father's Mantle: The Legacy of Gustav Niebuhr. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982.

Gunnemann, Louis H. The Shaping of the United Church of Christ: An Essay in the History of American Christianity. Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1999.

Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Von Rohr, John. The Shaping of American Congregationalism, 1620–1957. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1992.

Youngs, J. William T. The Congregationalists. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1998.

Glenn T.Miller/a. r.

See alsoEvangelicalism, and Revivalism ; Great Awakening ; Latitudinarians ; Puritans and Puritanism ; Social Gospel ; United Church of Christ .

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Congregationalism

Congregationalism, type of Protestant church organization in which each congregation, or local church, has free control of its own affairs. The underlying principle is that each local congregation has as its head Jesus alone and that the relations of the various congregations are those of fellow members in one common family of God. Congregationalism eliminated bishops and presbyteries.

History of the Movement

In Great Britain

The movement to which the name came to be applied began in the 16th and 17th cent. in England in a revolt against the Established Church. Robert Browne published in 1582 the first theoretical exposition of Congregational principles and expressed the position of some of those separatists. Churches established on such lines were started very early in the 17th cent. in Gainsborough and Scrooby, but government opposition drove them into exile in Holland.

Not until the Protectorate did the Congregationalists make much progress. About that time the name Independents was first introduced, a term long common in Great Britain (it is still used in Wales) but seldom used in America. In 1658, when the Savoy Synod met in London, over 100 churches were represented. With the Restoration came repression for the Independents, partly relieved by the Toleration Act of 1689.

A marked tendency among English Congregationalists in the 19th cent. was toward combination in larger fellowship. Churches of this denomination formed a union in Scotland in 1812 and in Ireland in 1829; in 1831 the Congregational Union of England and Wales was established. The Congregational Union and the Evangelical Union were united in 1896. Membership in Congregational churches in Great Britain has declined in the 20th cent. Congregationalists have been active in ecumenical activities, and in 1972 most British Congregationalists and Presbyterians merged to form the United Reform Church.

In America

Congregationalism was carried to America in 1620 by the Pilgrims, who were members of John Robinson's congregation in Holland, originally of Scrooby, England. In America, Congregationalism reached its greatest public influence and largest membership. In New England numerous communities were established based on Congregational-type religious principles. In 1648 in the Cambridge Platform a summary of principles of church government and discipline was drawn up. Congregationalists took a leading part in the Great Awakening that, in New England, was started in 1734 by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. As the country expanded, Congregational churches were established in the newly opened frontier regions.

In 1810 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions began its work; in 1826 the American Home Missionary Society was formed. These were followed in 1846 by the American Missionary Association, primarily devoted to missionary work among African Americans and Native Americans. The early part of the 19th cent. brought the Unitarian secession, when over 100 churches left the main Congregational body.

Congregational churches began to meet in local and then in statewide conferences, out of which developed (1871) the National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States. But each local church remained free to make its own declaration of faith and free to decide its own form of worship; in the conduct of the local church each member was granted an equal voice. The principal assistants of the pastor are the deacons. In education Congregationalists were always prominent, but the institutions of their founding—Harvard, Yale, Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, and many others—have generally been free from sectarianism.

The trend toward broader fellowship and larger cooperation was notably indicated in the merging in 1931 of the National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States and the General Convention of the Christian Church (see Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) to form the General Council of the Congregational and Christian Churches of the United States. A move to unite the Congregational Christian Churches with the Evangelical and Reformed Church was approved by the councils of the two denominations in 1957, forming the United Church of Christ. The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches was formed in 1955 by churches that chose not to join in the merger; it had about 70,000 members in 1997.

Bibliography

See W. Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (1907, repr. 1960); A. A. Rouner, Jr., The Congregational Way of Life (1960); H. Davies, The English Free Churches (2d ed. 1963); M. L. Starkey, The Congregational Way (1966).

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Congregationalism

Congregationalism Christian church denomination in which local churches are autonomous; members have been called Brownists, Separatists, and Independents. It is based on the belief that Christ is the head of the Church and all members are God's priests. Modern Congregationalism began in England in c.1580. In the UK, the Congregational Church in England and Wales merged with others to form the United Reformed Church (1972). In the USA, the Congregational Christian Churches united with others to form the United Church of Christ (1957).

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Congregationalism

Con·gre·ga·tion·al·ism / ˌkänggrəˈgāshənlˌizəm/ • n. a system of organization among Christian churches whereby individual local churches are largely self-governing. DERIVATIVES: Con·gre·ga·tion·al·ist n. & adj.

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