The name "Congregational Church" came into general use during those transitional years when the former Puritan churches of Massachusetts and Connecticut were losing their privileged status, between the outbreak of the American Revolution and the final disestablishments: 1818 for Connecticut and 1833 for Massachusetts. In the 1720s Anglicans (later called Episcopalians), Baptists, and Quakers had been excused from paying taxes to support those established churches, but their numbers were few. The era of the American Revolution saw great growth among Baptists; by 1790 the new Methodist denomination was also growing rapidly. Both made inroads in New England and by 1820 nearly one hundred congregational parishes had declared themselves Unitarian, almost all in eastern Massachusetts. As the United States grew in population and territory, the Congregational Church lost ground proportionally, but not absolutely: most growth was in New England, but Congregational churches could be found where New Englanders settled in significant numbers. The following figures demonstrate both the growth, but also the relative decline of congregational churches: 1740–423 parishes, 1776–668 parishes, 1820–1,100 parishes, 1860–2,234 parishes. But in 1740 Congregationalists had one-third of the parishes in the thirteen British colonies. By 1776, 21 percent; by 1830, 10.6 percent; and by 1860 a mere 4.25 percent!
In 1648 the Puritans, both Congregationalists and Presbyterians, controlled England and Scotland and attempted permanently to reform the Church of England with their Westminster Confession of Faith. That same year Massachusetts gathered a synod that included the Westminster Confession in its Cambridge Platform. Congregationalists and Presbyterians would always remain close to one another in theology but could never reconcile their ideas of church government. Both insisted their ministers should be thoroughly educated; both also urged education on their communities, with their ministers often keeping schools. Both agreed that individual congregations should be self-governing, with members electing all church officers, including the minister. And both agreed that representatives of those congregations should associate with one another on occasions to discuss common problems. But Presbyterians insisted on regular meetings, standing committees, and real authority at the provincial and eventually national level, while Congregationalists, like Baptists, have always been reluctant to surrender the sovereignty of the individual parish.
The 1750s found the churches of New England divided between the New Lights, who advocated revivals, and the Old Lights, who—however devout—feared that revivals brought forth more heat than light. Quite independent of that issue, population grew rapidly, requiring a constant supply of new churches. When almost every town and village could support a single church, it met in a simple, utilitarian meetinghouse that also housed civil government's town meeting. But when the larger towns had two or more churches, it became convenient for government to have its own buildings, and churches became more particularly dedicated to religious and educational purposes.
While Congregational churches had more or less strict requirements for membership, members—including women—could vote and therefore share in controlling policy. Not surprisingly, their town governments became even more democratic in practice; it naturally followed that the Congregational churches of New England were unanimous in supporting the American Revolution. Their support of the Federalist Party during the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon (1789–1815) was not based on fear of popular self-government; it came from their recognition that France, especially under the Directory and Napoleon, was neither free nor (within their meaning) Christian.
After American independence, all the churches were coping with their new sense of religious freedom and the challenges presented by rapid national growth. In 1801 Congregationalists and Presbyterians developed a Plan of Union to cooperate in planting churches in the American West. Congregationalists also founded a foreign missionary society in 1810, and played a leading part in interdenominational organizations; the American Bible Society (1816), the American Tract Society (1825), and the American Sunday School Union (1824). In 1826 the home missionary society modified the plan of union by bringing in other denominations, notably the Baptists. Congregationalists planted new colleges: Hamilton College in New York (1812); Western Reserve College in Ohio (1826); and Illinois College (1829). Denominations in the Calvinist tradition still led the young nation in the quality of their educational institutions, especially in the cases of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Andover Seminary. Along with high standards of scholarship, Yale and Andover sent out some of the most effective leaders of the Second Great Awakening.
Especially after 1800, Congregationalists developed a more distinctive style of church architecture. Church buildings were becoming what they remain into the twenty-first century: visible public reminders of the sacred services regularly conducted within them. The more prosperous churches installed pipe organs and hired skilled musicians to play them and improve congregational singing. More than half the members of the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Congregational churches were women. It would take almost two more centuries for them to become deacons and ministers. Yet they played increasingly important roles: improving the amenities of their buildings; participating in church government; and advancing the societies for moral reform that began to appear everywhere.
Andrews, John A., III. Rebuilding the Christian Commonwealth: New England Congregationalists and Foreign Missions, 1800–1830. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1976.
Buggeln, Gretchen Townsend. Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut Churches, 1790–1840. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2003.
Scott, Donald M. From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750–1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.
Variety of Practices. With the disappearance of a Puritan orthodoxy at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Congregational churches began to follow a variety of practices that church fathers tried to homogenize into some sort of uniformity. They had little success in Massachusetts, where coastal merchants gravitated toward churches which followed a “broad and catholic path,” stressing a moral life over community piety and admitting to full church membership all who professed a Christian belief. Solomon Stoddard in western Massachusetts also abandoned church covenants, dispensed the Lord’s Supper to all as a means of conversion, and advocated a presbyterial organization to prevent doctrinal errors in local congregations. His sermons were more emotional, however, and were designed to effect individual conversions rather than to create a community consensus. Other congregations continued to uphold the old traditions and would not even accept the Half-Way Covenant that middle-of-the-road churches adopted. The clerical party in Connecticut enjoyed the support of the governor and in 1708 was able to enact into law the Saybrook Platform. This plan provided for a presbyterian-type structure with county consociations to enforce discipline and doctrine in the local churches, ministerial associations to supervise them and their ordination of ministers, and a general association of ministers to set standards and procedures and generally oversee all church affairs. Yet the colony still had to abide by English law and tolerate other religions. It grudgingly passed a Toleration Act that few communities actually followed.
Churches. In the coastal cities throughout New England the physical appearance of churches changed, reflecting the growing wealth and sophistication of the members. Structures became larger and more luxurious and even sported steeples. Balconies accommodated more worshipers; tall windows flooded the interior with light. Altars appeared in the front of the church, with an elaborate, winding staircase leading to a pulpit which was placed high above the heads of the worshipers.
Revivals. In spite of the appearance of order, formalism, and rationalism that seemed to counter the old Puritan way, the earlier piety and longing for conversions continued. News of the powerful preaching of Solomon Stoddard and his revivals passed by word of mouth. The stirring increased under the pastorship of Jonathan Edwards and motivated other ministers to strive for awakenings in their congregations. By 1737, when Edwards published his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God describing the 1735 revival in his parish, local awakenings were regular occurrences. However, it took the
J. A. Cannon